Incarceration, disavowal and Ireland’s prison industrial complex
Paper presented at the ‘Irish Prisons: incarceration, repression and control’ conference, Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast 26-27 October 2017.
In September 2014 residents of several asylum centres in Ireland staged protests against their incarceration. Since April 2000 asylum seekers have been dispersed to ‘Direct Provision’ centres, managed by private for-profit companies under the supervision of the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), an arm of the Department of Justice and Equality, costing the state around 50 million euro per annum. Residents, who get bed and board, are not allowed to work or access third level education, and until August 2017 were given a small weekly ‘residual income maintenance payment to cover personal requisites’ of €19.10 per adult and €9.60 per child, increased to €21.60 per adult and first to €15.60 and then to €21.60 per child per week (Bardon 2017). Steven Loyal (2011) describes the Direct Provision centres as Goffman’s (1991) ‘total institutions’, where residents are controlled as to what and when they eat, who they share rooms with, who can visit them, and what access they have to crèches, laundries, kitchen facilities and appliances, and argues that ‘the negatively socially valued category of “asylum-seeker” becomes their master status.’
Although the Direct Provision system was originally intended for no more than a six months stay, 19.5 per cent have stayed for over three years. The average length of stay was 38 months while 450 people had been living in Direct Provision for more than seven years, leading to people becoming de-skilled, bored, depressed, destitute, and institutionalised. By September 2017, there were 5,063 people in Direct Provision centres. Seven of the centres are State-owned, the others are operated by for profit companies (Gartland, 2016) – making the Direct Provision system part of what Angela Davis term the ‘prison industrial complex’.
Many asylum seekers live with deportation orders in a state of deportability (Lentin and Moreo 2015), arguably making them what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1995) calls ‘bare life’, at the mercy of the laws of the sovereign state, which exempts itself from these very laws. And as Eithne Luibhéid (2013: 91) argues, ‘Direct Provision institutionalized the construct of the “asylum-seeker” as a distinct, undesirable type of person who must be subjected to relations of governance that were intended to deter, control, and incapacitate’.
The Direct Provision protesters demanded that all asylum centres be closed, that all residents be given the right to remain and work in Ireland, and that all deportations end. These demands are articulated by MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, a platform for asylum seekers to join together in unity and purpose.
In October 2014, apparently in response to these protests, the government appointed a working group ‘to report to Government on improvements to the protection process, including Direct Provision and supports to asylum seekers.’ The Working Group was made up of representatives of migrant-support NGOs but had no significant representation of asylum seekers themselves. While the then deputy Justice Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin admitted that the Direct Provision system is ‘inhumane’, and that ‘the way we treat asylum seekers and people in the (Direct Provision) system says a lot about us as a country’, the Working Group was charged with reforming rather than closing the Direct Provision system (The Journal 2014).
The Working Group’s recommendations were largely not adopted by the government (although the Minister for Justice said in October at the Senead that 98 per cent were adopted), and the Direct Provision system remains in place. However, in 2016 the government increased the ‘comfort allowance’ paid to asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres by an insulting amount. In 2016 the government introduced the International Protection Act based on a Single Application Procedure. The new act raises serious concerns in relation to firstly, the erosion of refugee families’ reunification rights; secondly, the impact on the applicants already in the asylum process in relation to the availability of appropriate legal advice and sufficient time and resources to shorten the waiting time; and thirdly, the ease with which deportations could be effected. In May 2017 the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the absolute ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional (Carolan 2017), and in October 2017 the Minister for Justice announced the intention to give asylum seekers in Ireland the right to work after six months in Direct Provision, a problematic announcement as very few details have been worked out. Lucky Khambule will elaborate on these developments.
Against this background, this paper makes three interlinked propositions. Firstly, I propose that as Irish state and society managed to ignore Ireland’s system of ‘coercive confinement’: workhouses, mental health asylums, mother and baby homes, Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools (O’Sullivan and O’Donnell 2012), they also ‘manage not to know’ about the plight of asylum seekers in Direct Provision. The Direct Provision system isolates asylum applicants, makes them dependent on state handouts and carceral rules, and makes it difficult for them to organize on a national level. ‘Managing not to know,’ or disavowing, erases the Direct Provision system from Ireland’s collective consciousness, but I suggest that asylum seekers signify the return of Ireland’s repressed, confronting Irish people, themselves e/migrants par excellence.
Secondly, I propose that we must not theorize residents of the Direct Provision system as passive victims at the mercy of sovereign power, to whom everything is done, but rather as active agents of resistance.
Thirdly, and more broadly, the incarceration of asylum seekers must be seen as continuing the tradition of administrative detention of political prisoners in the north of Ireland and of the widespread Irish practice of incarceration. I therefore theorize the Direct Provision system as the current embodiment of the island of Ireland as two parallel carceral states, where the prison industrial complex has historically incarcerated one in every hundred people in the Republic and administratively detained political prisoners in the north. I conclude, following Angela Davis, by calling for the total abolition of imprisonment and incarceration. Read more