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Care and Cruelty in Australia’s Asylum Seeker Prisons

Michelle Peterie’s revealing research offers a fresh angle on the human costs of immigration detention.

Drawing on over 70 interviews with regular visitors to Australia’s onshore immigration detention facilities, Peterie paints a unique and vivid picture of these carceral spaces. The book contrasts the care and friendship exchanged between detainees and visitors with the isolation and despair that is generated and weaponised through institutional life. It shows how visitors become targets of institutional control, and theorises the harm detention imposes beyond the detainee.

As the first research in this area, this book bears important witness to Australia’s onshore immigration detention system, and offers internationally relevant insights on immigration, deterrence and the politics of solidarity.

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This chapter provides the backdrop for this book by locating Australia’s immigration detention system in its political and historical context. It describes the vilification and politicization of people seeking asylum in Australia, the evolution of Australia’s controversial policy of indefinite mandatory detention, and the emergence of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker support/advocacy/activism movement.

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This chapter provides a theoretical scaffolding and vocabulary for understanding the harm enacted in immigration detention facilities. Drawing on research concerning the production of psychological pain in prisons, it highlights the clandestine mechanisms through which carceral institutions inflict pain in socio-legal contexts where overt violence is not socially or legally tenable. These insights concerning carceral power inform this book’s analysis of visitor experiences in Australian immigration detention facilities.

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This chapter describes the process individuals must go through to gain entrance to immigration detention facilities in Australia, highlighting marked similarities between these centres and prisons. It shows that visitor application and entrance processes have become complex and intimidating in recent year as centres have taken an increasingly securitized approach to visitor admission. In describing these processes and their escalation, this chapter begins to reveal the mechanisms of bureaucratic control that characterize Australia’s onshore detention system. It also shows how visitors are targeted as part of this carceral system.

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This chapter explores the realities of daily life in immigration detention in Australia, as witnessed and experienced by detention centre visitors. The chapter paints a detailed picture of immigration detention facilities as prison-like environments in which detainees are made to feel their vulnerability in the small details of institutional life. Rules are regularly changed and erratically enforced, and micro-level controls function to infantilize and disempower. This elaborate system of carceral deprivation and frustration keeps detainees in a state of anxious vigilance. It also extends to target visitors, positioning them as quasi-inmates and frustrating their efforts to provide meaningful support.

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This chapter examines the relationships that develop between immigration detainees and visitors in Australia, and considers the political significance of these friendships. It shows that in an institutional context where deterrence is enacted through the micro-level production of isolation and despair, visitors’ efforts to help detainees disrupt the socio-emotional conditions of their detention can constitute a meaningful (if imperfect) form of political resistance. It also demonstrates that visitor–detainee relationships can be a basis for more recognisable forms of political action as visitors partner with detainees to advocate for their rights and bear public witness to institutional violence. The necessity of solidaric (as distinct from paternalistic) care for the health of immigration detention relationships and activities is explored.

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This chapter concerns the use of involuntary movement within Australia’s immigration detention network. Against the backdrop of the previous chapter, it shows that the practice of regularly relocating detainees within the detention system attacks their networks of care and resistance. While detention facilities are often envisaged as places of confinement, forced mobility is an important aspect of how these carceral institutions enact power. Instability, despair and compliance are produced not only through the bleakness of institutional life, but also through the forced transfer of detainees between detention facilities and away from the visitors who provide social, emotional and instrumental support.

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This chapter documents the collateral impacts of immigration detention on centre visitors in Australia. It notes that many visitors derive benefits from their visitation relationships, but also highlights the traumatizing dimensions of the visitation experience. Visiting immigration detention, this chapter shows, involves witnessing trauma. It also involves a painful experience of secondary prisonization as visitors are targeted by a broader scheme of deprivation and frustration within detention facilities. The visitation experience is thus characterized by emotions of powerlessness and ontological disruption that at times feed into visitor attrition – thus serving to isolate detainees and further breed despair. Visitor strategies for enduring and maintaining resilience in the context of (secondary) trauma are described.

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The book concludes with a brief review of the study’s main findings, emphasizing the importance of recognizing the multiple forms of carceral violence that immigration detention facilities employ and the ‘tacit intent’ that underlies them. The direct and collateral harms documented in this book are not accidental but reflect a policy logic that accepts and even requires cruelty as a mechanism of control. In practice, deterrence involves the strategic production of despair as detainees and their supporters are pushed to breaking point to achieve crude political objectives.

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