BY Ryan McDougall | January 17 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


A look inside the ‘prison in all but name’

Frances Gallagher describes her first visit inside Dungavel Immigration Detention Centre

I have to admit I was quite nervous and my question to Margaret as we drove to Dungavel to meet with the centre manager and deliver the Justice and Peace Scotland Christmas cards for those detained was: “What’s it like inside, Margaret?”

Margaret Donnelly has protested at the existence of Dungavel as an immigration detention centre since it opened nearly 20 years ago and nothing fazes her. So it was a comfort to me that Margaret was taking me under her wing for what was my first visit inside a prison.

When we arrived, Margaret pressed the buzzer and spoke to the person on the other end. After a time, the first gate was opened electronically and we were instructed to step into a long narrow cage and await the second gate being opened.


Through the gates

It probably wasn’t that long before that second gate did open, but it felt like forever. I was anxious and didn’t want to do or say anything ‘wrong’—although I’m not sure now, looking back on it, how rational I was being and why I would think that delivering Christmas cards could somehow get me into trouble?

I think I was acutely aware of my freedom/liberty at that point and the thought of losing it, no matter how irrational it was, was scary.

The guard who let us through that second gate and into the grounds didn’t seem friendly. There was nothing wrong with anything he said or did but I felt he was hostile to our presence. We, after all, were the people who stood outside campaigning for the closure of his workplace.

Once inside the reception area, staff were friendly. We chatted briefly and they told us about local carol singers who were coming in later that night to perform a concert for everyone.


Security measures

They also told us that we had to leave all keys and phones with them. They ‘suggested’ we leave our bags with everything in them at reception. We didn’t object.

Would I leave my bag, purse etc with a stranger in any other scenario? I felt disarmed. As for most women, my life is in my bag: all my identification, bank cards, keys and personal effects. No matter what situation I’m in, I can usually delve into my bag and pull out something useful—a tissue, a carrier bag, a pen, my phone with my diary on it. Not today.

This was a business meeting but there was no doubt who was in charge. Our meeting went well and there was definitely an effort to bridge our opposing positions from both sides.




We talked about what we can do to support those detained and did come away with a sense of some shared common ground.

We would never agree that immigration detention is the correct way to treat those seeking sanctuary in Scotland.

But until there is a change in the law and community alternatives to imprisonment for asylum seekers are adopted, we must work together to ensure the best conditions for those who have committed no crime yet are detained in prison.

At the same time, we have to put all our efforts into campaigning for an end to the practice of immigration detention.

—Frances Gallagher is campaigns officer with Justice and Peace Scotland. Margaret Donnelly’s account of the visit will be published next week.

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