Annika Lindberg
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What you get is a prison
Detention in Denmark

The chapter details the everyday work of prison officers inside Denmark’s deportation prison, which incarcerates foreign nationals awaiting deportation. The prison officers in charge of the prison conceive themselves as marginal players in the deportation regime and take on their work tasks with a mixture of neglectful inaction and anticipation of violent action. The chapter depicts how the predominantly White officers use their prison training in applying ‘force’ and racial matrices to construct incarcerated people as criminal, unreliable, and prone to violence. Officers’ suspicion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when they use pre-emptive violence and degradation to discipline those detained. The chapter thus discusses how the systemic violence of the deportation prison translates into everyday violence, which dehumanises not only the people detained, but also those who incarcerate them.

‘We don’t want detention to be a black box, so we try to show all the things we do in here. Like the production room, or the workshop where they can do handicraft. We have some people here who are very talented.’ The director of Ellebæk, Martin, who is giving me an introduction to the detention centre during my first day of fieldwork, picks up a postcard painted by a man who was detained there some time ago.

There’s the sunset over the sea, and look how the fence is turned into birds flying off, it’s really nice, isn’t it? We really liked it so we printed it as one of our official postcards of the Danish Prison and Probation Service (Kriminalforsorgen), and he got to put his signature on it. Farhad.

I ask, ‘What happened to Farhad – did he fly off, too?’ ‘Well, yes’, Martin responds, ‘then he flew back to Afghanistan.’

Figure 2.1 Illustration by Farhad, Ellebæk

On my first day of fieldwork in Ellebæk deportation prison, Martin took me into his office, located right at the entrance of the prison, to give me a formal introduction. He talked me through a PowerPoint presentation he had prepared for the upcoming scheduled visit of the Schengen Evaluation and Monitoring Mechanism the week after, which contained information on Ellebæk’s institutional setup, some statistics, and a list of the activities offered to the people detained. Visits by monitoring bodies were routine in the prison system. After finishing his presentation, Martin looked around among the objects on his desk and picked up this postcard, painted by a man who had been detained in Ellebæk while awaiting deportation to Afghanistan. Martin told me the story of the postcard and its painter with great enthusiasm: to him, the postcard represented a counter-image to the common, negative representations of the deportation prison, a proof that this space of confinement could also be a place for creativity. Looking at the picture, Martin saw beauty and freedom in the birds freely flying over the fence towards the sunset. I never met Farhad and could not hear his own interpretation of the picture, but I suspect that the flight he embarked on was of a different kind than that of the birds on the postcard. I am also not sure if Martin was aware that the motif of the fence disintegrating into flying birds is an image that holds a different symbolic meaning among No Borders activists.1 Still, Martin’s enthusiasm over the postcard said something about him, and about Ellebæk. His insistence on finding a positively loaded purpose of the deportation prison, which was informed by his own background as a lawyer and prison director interested in prison reform, explained the ambivalence with which he approached his job at an institution that had as its sole purpose the symbolic criminalisation and expulsion of people like Farhad. His ambivalent feelings became even clearer to me as I gradually got to know Ellebæk as a place fraught with racism, insecurity, and violence.

The official purpose of Ellebæk, Denmark’s only purely migration-related detention centre, is to keep people available for deportation, and to pressure non-deported people to cooperate in the deportation process. The comprehensive body of research on migration-related detention has time and again demonstrated that confinement is an ineffective, costly, and harmful technique of deportation enforcement (see e.g., Bosworth, 2014; Hiemstra, 2020). Researchers have argued that rather than facilitating control, detention centres – or deportation prisons, which I will henceforth call them – are primarily designed to serve a number of other functions. Like prisons, they serve to contain the mobility of citizens or non-citizens (Davis and Dent, 2001), who are regarded as ‘not belonging’ to the state and nation (Sharma, 2021: 184). As such, they serve as mechanisms of social sorting and control that limit the freedoms and economic, social, and political power of subordinated groups in the interest of nationalist projects – and of global capital, both of which profit from investing in coercive state powers. Indeed, strong cases have been made for why we should focus on the continuities, rather than differences, between the logics and effects of ‘regular’ prisons and deportation prisons (see Sharma, 2021: 185). Bearing these continuities in mind, their seeming separation serves to legitimise both immigration control and prison regimes. Some of these functions will be described in this chapter. If prisons punish ‘deviant’ behaviours and shape notions of the ‘failed citizen’ (Anderson, 2013: 28), deportation prisons criminalise and symbolically punish non-citizens ‘for being who they are: foreign’ (Bosworth, 2018: 3). Accordingly, their official aim is not to discipline and ‘resocialise’ deviant citizens, but to punish, contain, and expel undesired ‘others’ from the territory altogether (Bigo, 2006). This process builds upon and necessitates dehumanisation, which is achieved by breaking incarcerated persons down mentally, physically, and existentially (Boochani, 2018), hence reducing them to expellable bodies (Khosravi, 2010). What is more, it produces the dehumanisation of those enacting it.

Ellebæk: from hyggested to banoptic prison

Udlæningecenter Ellebæk (Foreigners’ Centre Ellebæk) was inaugurated in October 1989 as Denmark’s first and only prison devoted to the incarceration of non-deported migrants. The Danish government had received domestic and international criticism for detaining people who had sought asylum in police custody together with people held for criminal charges and was under pressure to come up with an alternative. Ellebæk, a former military facility in the Northern Zealand Region, became the government’s solution for separating people detained on migration-related grounds from ‘ordinary criminals’.2 Ellebæk is located in an active military training zone, where the sounds of shooting exercises echo across the fields, and military tanks regularly pass by. The regional branch of the Prison and Probation Service runs the prison. In an essay detailing the initial setup of Ellebæk, Freddy Frederiksen (2009: 10), a prison officer who worked there since its inauguration in 1989, explains how Ellebæk had initially been a ‘small and cosy place’ (hyggested) with ‘well-behaved detainees’ who were detained under ‘relatively good conditions’ while authorities were trying to investigate and fixate their identity. Much like Freddy, the prison officers I met who had worked in the prison since the 1990s talked nostalgically about the relatively relaxed atmosphere of the early days. Back then, and despite the militarised nature of the prison facilities, they had not experienced it as an overtly securitised environment: control mechanisms were lax, officers wore jogging clothes, and the old, malfunctioning surveillance system made it relatively easy for detained people to escape, without anyone making too big a fuss about it. However, as Denmark saw a steady increase in the number of people arriving to seek protection in the 1990s, the prison was gradually filled up with people whose asylum claims had been rejected and who were awaiting deportation. With this development, the atmosphere in the prison changed. Karsten, a senior prison officer who had worked in Ellebæk since its inauguration, explained to me how this change in the clientele had heightened officers’ awareness of the harmful design of the deportation prison.

Early on, we had Yugoslavians here who were supposed to return when the war was over. They had bullet wounds, shrapnel still in their arms … they really went through war. The wounds were not fresh, but they still carried the scars. And then they were shooting all around here. That was strange.

If Ellebæk was allegedly supposed to improve conditions for detained foreign nationals compared to the prison where they had been detained earlier, Karsten’s reflection illustrates the lack of preparedness among officers to handle people who carried traumas of war and displacement, and who were awaiting deportation to the place they had once fled from. For Karsten, this insight was ‘strange’. As the years went by, and as border controls became increasingly politicised and securitised in Denmark, Ellebæk kept developing in a more restrictive and punitive direction. The prison expanded, additional layers of secure fences were erected, and CCTVs were installed around the compound. Prison officers exchanged their jogging clothes for full prison uniforms with Kriminalforsorgen written across their backs. Ellebæk deportation prison developed into a spectacular manifestation of Denmark’s restrictive deportation regime.

Figure 2.2 Photo of Ellebæk detention centre

In 2020, Ellebæk had the capacity to incarcerate 136 people in cells shared by up to four people (after ongoing renovations, its capacity is expected to increase to 200 people). Statistics on those incarcerated are difficult to come by, since Danish authorities do not keep public records on the number of foreign nationals detained annually. The Prison and Probation Service recorded that 2,180 people were incarcerated on migration-related grounds in 2016: the majority of the people detained were identified or identifying as men. People identifying as women made up around 10 per cent, and at the time of my fieldwork, they were held in a separate building. Those incarcerated in Ellebæk are people whose asylum cases have been rejected, people apprehended at the border without authorisation to enter or remain in Denmark, visa overstayers, and people who have been found working without authorisation. Some of them are sex workers, many of whom have been arrested in the heavily policed Copenhagen neighbourhood Vesterbro; others were arrested in police raids on restaurants or construction sites. Statistically, the absolute majority of those detained in Ellebæk are eventually deported from Denmark (Herschend, 2019), but Danish immigration authorities also used incarceration as a so-called motivating measure to pressure people to comply with a deportation order against their will. Therefore, whereas most people pass through Ellebæk quickly – in 2018, the average length of stay was thirty-two days (Global Detention Project, 2018) – there are some who are released after they resisted deportation, only to be detained again at a later point; and yet others who are held in Ellebæk up to the maximum eighteen-month time limit. The routine prolongation of detention orders in Ellebæk has repeatedly drawn critique from detained people as well as detention visiting groups (see Ellebæk Contact Network, 2020), who found that even people who wished to leave Denmark as soon as possible, and whose incarceration therefore did not serve any practical function, have reportedly been held for extended time periods. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of incarcerated individuals dropped only temporarily (between March and June 2020) and then increased again, according to the Danish Immigration Agency (2020). Hence, the pandemic did not cause any major disruptions to the routine incarceration of foreign nationals, even during a time when authorities had limited prospects of deporting them due to global travel restrictions.

If Ellebæk formally operates as a deportation prison, it also holds symbolic and disciplinary functions. It subjects non-deported people to arbitrary and often protracted confinement under very poor material conditions that many referred to as ‘worse than prison’. Even though incarcerated people were – legally, and in theory – imprisoned on administrative rather than punitive grounds, they were governed by rules identical to those in locked prisons. Cell phones were prohibited, and detained people had no access to the internet; at the time of my fieldwork, the internet café was closed, allegedly because officers were uncertain of which webpages should be accessible. Those detained were served the same meals with identical portions, and activities followed the same schedule as in regular prisons. Officers regularly referred to detained people as fanger (inmates), the same term they would use for ‘ordinary’ prisoners. Yannick, one of the officers, once told me bluntly, ‘Of course it’s a prison. It actually doesn’t make a difference if you violated the Aliens Act or Penal Code, it’s a crime nonetheless and they get you into jail.’ Martin, the director, also contended,

We often hear that it resembles a prison – and it does. If you put prison officers from a prison in charge of running the place, what you get is a prison. That’s just how it is. Politically, they wish to keep conditions at a minimum. It’s supposed to be strict. And people only stay here for four weeks on average. So, it’s like a student corridor, right? You know, people only stay there for short periods of time and you see it on the facilities, no one makes it their home and they get worn down … it’s a bit like that here. And if it’s already worn down you don’t get motivated to keep it clean. Look, somebody scribbled down the alphabet here … and over here it says ‘fuck Denmark’, ‘fuck the system’, ‘prison’.

A student corridor might seem like a misplaced metaphor for a facility surrounded by three layers of fences several metres tall, topped with barbed wire, and with gates and windows covered with metal bars. A person who tried to escape would first have to climb a metal fence; then a taller fence topped with barbed wire; and lastly, a wooden, opaque fence, which also served to obscure the inside of the prison from an outsider’s view. It was not uncommon, I was told, that those who attempted escapes ended up severely hurt by the razor-sharp blades of the fences. While the external fences of Ellebæk were deliberately designed to harm potential transgressors as part of its spectacular penal performance (see Pugliese, 2008), inside the prison wings, any means that could be used by detained people to self-harm had been removed. The walls were unevenly painted and covered with scribbles and drawings. Next to names, tags, and numbers, I noticed a piece of paper glued onto the wall with the text ‘kidnapped by the Danish police’, and a house with a Danish flag, under which it was written, ‘a home in Denmark is different from this’. Prison officers told me that there used to be couches and a TV in the common area in the corridor, where they would sometimes sit down together with the detained people, but these had been removed, nobody really knowing why. Conditions were slightly better in the women’s wing: according to Martin, it had been renovated following critique by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, who found it problematic that women were placed in a corridor adjacent to the men’s department. According to the prison janitor, a civilian staff member, such cosmetic renovations were regularly conducted to please external monitoring bodies. However, and as he also concluded, they were not enough to prevent or appease the severe criticism that Ellebæk has repeatedly received for its prison-like environment, deplorable material conditions, inadequate health provisions, degrading treatment of incarcerated people, and excessive use of punitive measures (see Amnesty International, n.d.; Ellebæk contact network, 2020; Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture, 2019).3

I was told that this harmful and punitive setup of Ellebæk was intentional. Martin maintained that the low material standards were the result of a political decision to keep conditions strict. ‘And that’s a dilemma for us’, Martin explained, ‘on the one hand, we have the public opinion, which is very restrictive and wants tougher control measures. On the other hand, we must treat each individual humanely … that’s our dilemma. And it’s difficult to build relations with detainees, as they only stay for a short time, and they think this place is shit.’ When we discussed the poor material standards and the rundown facilities, several prison officers acknowledged that they ‘would never allow such conditions for Danish prisoners’. Hence, Ellebæk, with its neglectful and directly harmful architecture, was a material manifestation of a strategic use of symbolic criminalisation for the purpose of mobility control, but also of how sharp, racialised distinctions are deliberately constructed between incarcerated citizens and deportable others, which obscure the continuities between their respective conditions (see Sharma, 2021). The remainder of the chapter demonstrates how this hierarchical difference was sustained and reproduced in the everyday interactions between the Danish officers and incarcerated people at Ellebæk.

Prison officers turned border guards

‘We are not criminals … they make us into criminals.’ Andrew, who was incarcerated in Ellebæk for a total of twelve months, rightly notes that Ellebæk effectively served to make people into migrants and to equate migrants with criminals. At the same time, it made prison officers into reluctant border guards. Ellebæk was an unpopular workplace, and officers jokingly refer to it as the ‘trash bin of the prison system’. Martin, who had become the director of Ellebæk because of an organisational reform, admitted, ‘when I got the job, my colleagues even said to me, should I say congratulations? I think that says a lot about how this place is perceived.’ Like Martin, most prison officers in Ellebæk had not actively chosen to work there – nor in the Prison and Probation Service, for that matter. While they had all undergone the three-year training to become a prison officer, several of them told me that they had ended up doing so simply because they could not find any other job. There were some exceptions: John, for instance, a man in his forties who had previously worked for the Danish military, said that the reason why he had joined the Prison and Probation Service was ‘the adrenaline. There’s constantly something happening here, and that makes it exciting. On the other hand … compared to the military, it might not be worth the risk to get stabbed for DKK 24,000 a month.’4 Prior to his arrival at Ellebæk, John had also worked in a high-security unit in a Danish prison, and his colleagues regularly joked about how well he fitted into that environment with his shaved head, tribal tattoos, and pumped biceps. Yet, John was now getting tired of his job, which, like many of the other prison officers, he considered to be underpaid, undervalued, and associated with threats and violence. To make ends meet and to get a break from the violent prison environment, John – and others with him – worked two jobs in parallel. Next to being prison officers, they worked as supply teachers, personal assistants to young people with disabilities, foresters, or electricians. This was not only to top up their salary but also to create a lifeworld outside detention (see also Bosworth, 2018), where they worked in a more positive atmosphere, and felt they were ‘able to help people’. The people they wanted to help were not the ones incarcerated in Ellebæk.

Compared to regular prisons, officers had fewer responsibilities and interactions with the people incarcerated in Ellebæk. Very few among the officers spoke any other language than Danish and poor English. None of them had received any training in immigration law, and they had little or no insight into detained people’s cases. Some of the senior officers also told me that they used to try to educate themselves about the deportation process and to read the case files of those incarcerated, but nowadays, few were willing to make time for such additional engagements. What officers knew about the people detained was therefore limited to the first page of their case files, which only listed a case number, name, physical characteristics (height, eye colour, body type, hair colour and type), and grounds for detention (categorised either as ‘§ 36’, ‘other Aliens Act’, or ‘asylum shopper’). To some extent, their disassociation from the deportation regime enabled prison officers to share their critical views on what they perceived as an ineffective, even absurd spectacle of law enforcement. Moreover, and even though most people detained in Ellebæk were eventually deported (in 2018, 87 per cent of detention orders ended in deportation, and in 2020, the figure was 74 per cent, according to numbers retrieved from the Danish Return Agency), stories of deportation ‘failures’ circulated among officers. One recurrent story shared by several prison officers was of detained people who ‘had fallen asleep on the train from Sweden and woken up in Copenhagen by mistake’. These people would be apprehended by authorities and subsequently incarcerated in Ellebæk, sometimes for several weeks, while awaiting deportation back to Sweden according to the Dublin Regulation. Prison officers found it hard to see why, since the matter would have been more easily resolved if the person had simply been put on a returning train back across the bridge. One man, I was told, had been in and out of Ellebæk seven or eight times, always stating the same reason for his reappearance. As we were discussing the seeming absurdity of deportations, Arash, one of the prison officers, told me a more fantastic story:

I don’t know if it was just a rumour – it’s a story about two Swedish police officers who were going to escort a deportee to Iran. At the airport in Tehran the police were locked into a room and nobody told them what was going on. After a while, the Iranian police came and told them that they just got on their shift and had no idea who these Swedish police officers were or what they were doing there – and on top of this, they had no valid visas in their passports! – so the Iranian police felt obliged to deport them to Sweden immediately. They put hand cuffs on the Swedish police officers and asked the Iranian deportee to please escort the police officers back home to Sweden.

The truth behind Arash’s story is difficult to assess. But the tales of the sleepy cross-border commuters and spectacularly failing deportations are examples of the chaotic operation of deportation enforcement and how it generates cyclic mobilities, time traps, and sometimes absurd outcomes (see Eule et al., 2019; Hiemstra, 2020). Prison officers also remarked on how the court proceedings for detained foreign nationals were Kafkaesque compared to ‘real’ (criminal) court cases. Mikkel once told me about a colleague of his who, while auditing the court hearing of a detained man, had stood up in the courtroom and exclaimed, ‘But all detention orders are just the same!’ For this, he had been scolded by the management. It was, after all, not the prison officers’ job to question court orders5 – although, the unintelligibility of court hearings regarding detention orders was also in agreement with detained people’s experiences (see Ellebæk contact network, 2020). Yet, the illegibility and seemingly arbitrary operation of the detention and deportation apparatus reinforced prison officers’ perception that Ellebæk, the people imprisoned there – and, by extension, the officers themselves – were neglected.

While working in Danish prisons, officers had been responsible for ensuring imprisoned people’s access to education, vocational training, civil rights, and psychosocial support. Yet, none of these schemes was available in Ellebæk, even though there were, like in all other prisons, ‘opportunities’ offered to those incarcerated to undertake prison labour, and/or partake in daily activities in exchange for a small amount of money (less than EUR 2 per hour or EUR 35 per week; see Canning, 2019b), for which they could buy snacks and cigarettes, or phone cards, which were their only means of communicating with the outside world. As prison labour, they would clean the detention wings, cook, or distribute food. They could also work in the so-called production room, a large warehouse adjacent to the main prison building, where those imprisoned spent five hours a day, Monday through Friday, sorting red plastic strips into boxes of 1,000 each, placing stickers on low-price products, or putting recycling stickers on San Pellegrino bottles. These products, I was told, were shipped from China via Rotterdam, and eventually ended up in low-price stores in Denmark. ‘It gives inmates something to do and keeps their minds off other things’, Yannick explained to me: ‘we don’t give them any advanced tasks, this is more like something you put handicapped people to do. But they earn good money here, some of them get more than they would earn in their home countries.’ A teacher was also hired in Ellebæk to offer English classes, held in a separate building, which according to the teacher allowed participants to ‘get out of their rooms, make some coffee, and relax for a while’. Finally, detained people could partake in a workshop for handicrafts, such as sewing and drawing. This was where Farhad had drawn the postcard of the prison fences disintegrating into birds, and Martin, the director, spoke warmly about these different ‘activation offers’. He was particularly proud of a recent initiative, where workshop participants had been asked to paint a memory game with the flags representing the countries they had passed through on their way to Denmark. Martin explained,

These people often passed many different countries, so this is a way for them to make use of their story. And then they can choose to put their signature on them and we save them and can give them to visitors, or to children. It really motivates them that they are offered the opportunity to give something to children. This way, they leave a piece of remembrance of themselves here. Also, we see that they bring experiences, that they also have ‘hearts and minds’ and aren’t just an anonymous mass.

The activation schemes were presented as ways of rendering incarcerated people’s time productive, if not profitable. Like elsewhere, such prison labour was considered an ethical and ‘restorative’ intervention (see Sliva and Samimi, 2018), where incarcerated people were offered a chance not only to demonstrate their productivity, but as Martin’s comment suggested, to restore their humanity. Implicitly, then, they were considered less than human in the first place. Reflecting on how this differed from how officers approached incarcerated citizens, Mikkel, a senior prison officer who was approaching his retirement, explained, ‘It’s a bit different from Danish prisons, because there the aim is to make prisoners become better people. And that’s not our aim here. We’re just warehousing them […] we don’t have an aim with them.’ He continued with a shrug, ‘we lack a proper work description. Politicians find it convenient just to hide people here. The conditions are shit … sometimes, I feel ashamed. But that’s how the system is, it’s just because they are asylum seekers that they can treat them like that. After a while, you get used to it.’

To get used to and to make sense of the dehumanisation of incarcerated people ostensibly based on their legal status, prison officers relied on racial matrices. Race, alongside gender, sexuality, and class, functioned as axes of differentiation that officers drew on to position themselves in relation to the people detained and to structure interactions in Ellebæk. The vast majority of prison officers were white men with Danish working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. Many officers came from rural areas in Denmark and frowned at my mention of living in the Nørrebro area in Copenhagen, which they associated with social problems of delinquency, poverty, and insecurity – issues which in their imaginary had ‘arrived’ in Denmark with people of ‘non-Western origin’. The racialised, classed sense of togetherness that brought prison officers together was more intensely felt by some: Karsten, for instance, jokingly referred to Ellebæk as ‘a refuge for weirdos’, amiably recounting the story of a colleague who had temporarily moved into a cell in an empty prison wing for a few weeks following his recent divorce, until he found a new place to live. Yet, prison officers’ sense of togetherness was constituted through depicting detained people as ‘others’; stripped of their social and rehabilitative functions, and operating in an environment that they perceived as a poor replication of the prison system, prison officers drew on racial imaginaries to make up for and to make sense of their role as border guards.

Racial matrices and the production of difference

It is dinner time. Two detained men who are working in the kitchen are distributing the food in each detention wing, accompanied by three prison officers. People in the wings approach the gates one by one, receiving their portion of rice and stew and complimentary pieces of bread. One man walks up to the officers and asks if he can make a phone call (phones are installed in each corridor but he would need money to use them) but it is unclear whether the officers understand him. One of the officers, Yannick, cuts him off: ‘Tomorrow! Tomorrow!’ And the man gives up. Yannick turns to another man who is just about to pick up his food, ‘You look just like another guy who had the same name as you. He stayed here for a year!’ The man looks startled. ‘Me – one year?’ ‘No no, another guy, smaller than you’, Yannick tries to assure him; the man is still confused. Yannick turns to me: ‘I am just making conversation with them to check the atmosphere. Just to see how they react.’ The incarcerated men who are distributing food finish their work and we move on with the food cart to the next wing. Two people initially do not show up to collect their dinner, which makes Yannick irritated. When they arrive, he snorts, ‘Are you from Somalia or what? Are you stupid? Dinner is served at the same time every day. How can you miss it? Next time we are not giving you any.’ He jokingly nods towards the men working in the kitchen: ‘They will beat you with a loaf of bread if you are late next time.’ A younger detained man, whom I have been chatting with in the past few days, stops us to ask the officers something. He offers us some dried dates. I take one, Yannick refuses. ‘It looks like camel shit’, he snorts, ‘I never accept anything from the inmates.’ Before we leave the wing, another man comes up to us with a piece of paper, which he points at while asking Yannick, ‘Does it say I get out of here?’ Seemingly stressed by the sudden question, Yannick quickly responds, ‘No’, and continues, seemingly in an attempt of a joke, ‘we can take away your freedom, but we can’t take away your dreams!’ Once we have left the detention wing and shut the door behind us, Yannick is told off by Mikkel, who overheard the last interaction. ‘I don’t know what these decisions mean and therefore I never read them out to them, so I don’t give them the wrong information.’6

The interactions I observed between prison officers and the people detained in Ellebæk usually played out along the lines of the encounters exemplified above. Officers’ main tasks consisted in escorting detained people between different appointments, including inscription and discharge, and meetings with lawyers and visitors. They also conducted the daily headcounts and distributed meals and medicine (many of those incarcerated were prescribed anti-depressive medication, sleeping pills, or painkillers). Interactions were brief and limited by language barriers, and by officers’ impatience to get done with their task, which regularly created misunderstandings. Officers used offensive jokes and racial slurs to ‘test’ the atmosphere, and discipline and degradation to assert their authority. When they were not occupied with overseeing the daily routines in the prison, officers would spend most of their work shifts in their offices, from where they could hear but not see the people detained. This was also where I spent the main part of my fieldwork. Especially on weekends and during night shifts, after the evening headcount, the prison officers’ job did not entail much else than staying awake, watching TV, and chitchatting to each other – or with me. Our conversations ranged from forestry, officers’ plans for vacation or life after retirement, and comparisons between the cartoon-like characters of the Swedish and Danish royal families, to stories from a hardened prison world, discussions over the alleged threat of mass immigration, and relatedly, the racialised threat that officers ascribed to the people detained.

I’m in the office of detention wing 17 with Mia and Markus, who are among the junior officers. Not much is happening. I usually get restless from sitting down there so I stand up, clutching today’s fifth cup of coffee. Arash enters the office, panting. He has played football with some of the detained men in the sport hall, and Mia asks how it went. ‘We won’, he says, triumphantly, ‘but there was a North African who started a fight. I don’t get why they always have to fight; they haven’t even lived through war themselves. If you have then I understand you get aggressive, but with these boys …’, Arash turns to me, ‘You know, North Africans are thieves and tricksters who cheat on the system. I promise you, Muslims stand for 90 per cent of all crimes in the Nordic countries. I’m not racist but I’m telling you like it is.’ Arash often engages in lengthy rants over incarcerated people with North African backgrounds in particular, making some of his colleagues roll their eyes, and me bite my tongue. I ask how that makes him feel about working here, given his irritation with the people he works with. ‘You get an identity crisis! It breaks my heart when we are separating families or sending Afghans and Iranians back to war and persecution, but we let North Africans and others, who are just here to trick the system, stay. You want to help those who are in need but you end up doing something else.’ Arash leaves to change from his sportswear back into his prison uniform. The other officers in the room laugh quietly, exchanging some jokes on Arash’s behalf. Some of them would not express it as bluntly as he does, but they agree with what he says. Mia emphasises that stereotypes are an important source of knowledge for prison officers, as it helps them anticipate the behaviour of inmates. Hans agrees and goes on listing another couple of racist stereotypes. ‘Somalis are proud, Russians are calm as many of them are criminals and are used to being imprisoned. And Nigerians fight hard. You would rather have ten North Africans against you than one Nigerian. Not the women, the African women are loud, but I can tolerate that. Just not threats. But’, Hans mutters, ‘don’t call me racist, that makes me irritated. I’m not racist. I’m equally mean to everyone.’

Conversations such as these demonstrated officers’ reliance on racist, gendered stereotypes to fixate the identity of incarcerated people. Arash was among the very few prison officers with a migrant background. It was the irony of fate, he told me, that he, who had once been imprisoned, was now imprisoning others who had fled persecution. On the other hand, he insisted, this had taught him to distinguish between ‘real war survivors’ and ‘tricksters’ who, in his view, sought to manipulate the Danish system. In the eyes of his colleagues, Arash’s racialised identity as migrant from a ‘non-Western country’ lent his rants – while often outrageous – an air of legitimacy; his anti-Muslim statements did not seem to count as such, since other officers considered him to be ‘one of them’. Moreover, Arash’s white colleagues often repeated similar statements, insisting that their ‘gut feelings’, trained in the prison system, made them able to read and know the people detained (see also Hall, 2010, 2016).

Aretxaga (2000: 404) has argued that the state strives to produce ‘legibility’ of the bodies it produces as non-normative or alien. Therefore, ‘the official gaze constantly scans these bodies for signs (of the criminal, the terrorist, the immigrant, the undocumented), in an attempt to […] extricate the secret opacity of its uncanny familiarity’. In their efforts to render detained people legible, officers insisted that their racist gut feelings provided them with a reliable source of knowledge. The matrices that officers drew on to identify their ‘uncanny familiarity’ consisted of colonial and racist tropes, which transformed detained people into tricksters and criminals, imbued with dangerous, predatory masculinity, or which reduced them to filthy, sly ‘tricksters’. The fear, anxiety, and hatred that officers felt when encountering detained people were what Bonilla-Silva (2019: 1) has called ‘racial emotions’, which serve to sustain ‘the distinctions between citizen and other […] in the minutiae of everyday life’ (Hall, 2010: 883). Moreover, by racialising the people incarcerated, prison officers also racialised themselves, and ‘the state’ they represented. Some of them explicitly saw their role as defending Danish/Nordic whiteness; a whiteness which also encompassed me as a white woman. I would often get into heated arguments with Hans, who during one of our conversations told me that I must make sure to ‘marry white’ or I would ‘soon be a racial minority in my own country’. Such conspiracist fantasies of ‘foreignisation’ – understood as a fear of loss of imagined racial and cultural homogeneity (Rodríguez, 2018: 18) – were regularly circulated among officers in Ellebæk. In these conversations, I was positioned either as a prospective victim of this process, or as a potential racial traitor (Andreassen and Myong, 2017); for officers, my ‘naïve’ political views and ‘political correctness’ made my ascribed part in their white supremacist project fraught and ambivalent. Hans was the officer who seemed the most concerned with this ambivalence. While he was explicitly critical of my political positioning (and reproductive responsibility), he was also careful not to argue with me for too long. In the midst of a heated debate, he would switch topics from whom I should marry to another issue where we might agree – be it Doc Martens shoes (which we were both wearing), or my opinion on his wife’s Chinese crested dog. When I got tired of arguing, I would silently agree to end the discussion, and ask about his own feelings for his wife’s preferred dog type.

While officers relied on racial tropes and used racial slurs as techniques of dehumanisation in their everyday work, they also firmly and consistently denied being racist. The plentiful testimonies by detained people who have experienced racist and degrading treatment from staff (see Ellebæk contact network, 2020) have also routinely been dismissed by the prison management. Like Hans, several officers stated that they ‘would not tolerate being called racist’; how could they be racist, they pondered, when they treated all incarcerated migrants equally badly? On a different occasion, I spent the day with Yannick in the detained women’s wing and witnessed an argument between him and an incarcerated woman, who at some point during their discussion called him racist. The situation immediately escalated, with Yannick pushing her up against the wall, twisting her arm, and escorting her to solitary confinement. Afterwards, Yannick was self-conscious that I had witnessed the incident, and asked me if it had ‘made me feel uncomfortable’, well aware that it had. I asked why he had taken her to solitary confinement. ‘This is not the first time she has called me racist’, Yannick replied, ‘you have got to show them who’s in charge. But she will just stay there until she calms down.’ Shielding themselves from allegations of racism by punishing its utterances enabled officers (and the prison management) to claim that their practices were ‘innocent’ and indeed, ‘colourblind’ (see Wekker, 2016: 4), even as racism was a structural and structuring logic of the deportation prison. Racist attitudes were after all only the most superficial expressions of the racism structurally embedded and reproduced in Ellebæk.

The everyday violence of confinement

My husband is always worried when I go to work. I do understand him because we have quite a lot of incidents here. When I started, we had eight suicide attempts within the first three weeks and I’m like – thank you very much, this is my welcome. Only one of them completed it, though. We have been exposed to everything here, I’ve been bitten, beaten, kicked … but you can’t think about what could happen all the time because then you can’t work.

Violence was omnipresent in Ellebæk. You could feel it in the carceral materiality of the prison; it circulated in the racist, degrading language of prison officers, and it manifested in the tools available to officers to discipline and punish those incarcerated. In the quotation above, the prison officer Mia explains how violence was present not only in her own mind – although she actively tried to shut it out – but also spilled over into the concerns of her partner. In everyday life inside Ellebæk, violence was also present as anticipation. Stories of violent incidents, like the one above, circulated among prison officers: during the hours I spent with them in the armchairs, they would often share stories from eventful work shifts and dramatic situations, when detained people had resisted detention by staging escape attempts and riots, harming themselves, or physically confronting officers. The stories served as a reminder that violence, and the threat thereof, was omnipresent, even though most of the time, nothing happened. I was regularly told, when I left the detention centre after a shift, ‘You were lucky – today was a calm day.’ These comments made me wonder whether I was missing out on something; if the prison was such an insecure environment, and violent interactions between staff and detained people as common as prison officers’ stories suggested, these events seemed to evade me, and I them.

Violence and its anticipation are inscribed into the very nature of confinement (Drake, Earle, and Sloan, 2016), as is its uneven distribution over time. Research on asylum camps, prisons, and migration-related detention has documented the temporal violence of incarceration, where those confined are forced to endure oceans of ‘sticky’, protracted time (Griffiths, 2013; 2017) spent waiting, experiencing boredom (Torbenfeldt Bengtsson, 2012; Wagner and Finkielsztein, 2021), but also anxiety, as the stillness can at any point be pierced by disruptive events. In deportation prisons, waiting is overshadowed by the anticipation of expulsion (Borrelli, 2021). The anticipation of violence and the uncertainty it brings has a high toll on detained people, causing stress, sleep deprivation, frustration, and depression (see Boochani, 2018; Bosworth, 2014; Esposito et al., 2020), and sometimes, premature death. In Ellebæk, six suicide attempts were recorded and two people killed themselves between 2012 and 2018 (Folketingets Ombudsmand, 2019), but it is not clear whether suicide attempts such as the one described by Mia as routine, almost mundane occurrences, were included in these statistics. What remains uncounted is also the long-lasting, traumatising effects of incarceration that people continue to experience long after they are released from deportation prisons like Ellebæk.

Hence, violence is integral to incarceration. To return to its manifestations inside Ellebæk, I found that the sticky time, boredom, and anxiety also operated on officials, leading them to provoke confrontations that, like self-fulfilling prophecies, reaffirmed their violent anticipations. Similar dynamics have been described by Didier Fassin (2017) in his ethnography of urban policing in the banlieues of Paris, where officers, in the absence of tangible work tasks and action that they had anticipated, provoked confrontations with residents of the suburbs in order to fulfil their own expectations of what police work should entail. The officers’ perceptions of the suburbs as ‘savage’ neighbourhoods were informed by racist tropes, and a glorification of violence, fear fostered through political and media discourse, and officers’ own lack of familiarity with and comprehension of the neighbourhoods they were policing. However, their prejudices stood in sharp contrast to the everyday realities of police work, where they spent most of their shifts idly waiting for alarm calls that rarely came or patrolling quiet neighbourhoods in search of criminal activity that did not occur. Fassin observes how an ‘illusion of action’ was nevertheless maintained by officers: by recounting spectacular events that had taken place during previous shifts, they maintained the impression that violence, delinquency, and disorder were around the corner ‘despite all evidence on the contrary’ (Fassin, 2017: 291). These illusions led officers to step up their proactive policing efforts, principally consisting of harassing sans-papiers and racialised young people with unwarranted stops and frisks and responding to any misdemeanour with disproportionate violence. Consequently, the relations between the police force and neighbourhood residents kept aggravating, largely because of police officers’ futile efforts to fill their work hours.

Fassin’s observations are useful for understanding how the anticipation of violence among frontline workers makes them resort to pre-emptive and disproportionate use of force in their encounters with racialised (non)citizens. The latter are in turn framed as those responsible for danger and disorder. In a similar way, the circulation of racist tropes, chauvinist attitudes, and violent anticipations among Ellebæk’s prison officers led them to use force pre-emptively as a way of affirming their authority – and of confirming their racist suspicions that incarcerated individuals were imbued with danger and violence. This way, the structural violence of detention was reproduced in everyday life. The following vignette offers an example of this dynamic.

I am spending the evening in detention wing 18. John, Alex, and Markus, who used to work together in a high-security prison, are finishing up dinner in their office. Their food consists of fried bacon, which they have carefully arranged on their plates and topped with fried eggs. They offer me a huge glass of Pepsi Light, which I decline. We talk about how working in the prison impacts them. Alex says, ‘You do get a bit crazy here … you must not bring work home. You must shut down, don’t feel sorry for them. Some do – but they don’t last here for long. You have to protect yourself.’ I ask about their exposure to violence. Markus joins the conversation:

You get used to it. You can’t think about that every time you go to work, that would make you crazy. Personally, I can see how incidents where I have used force sort of become blurred, I can’t separate them. Like on New Year’s Eve, when three inmates cut themselves, they cut deep and there was blood everywhere, but neither the police nor the healthcare personnel had time because it was New Year’s Eve and just after midnight, so we had to take care of it. We did what we could, but one of them took off the bandage in the isolation cell and there was blood all over again and we had to redo it … Afterwards one of them got sixty stitches. And at the same time, two people tried to escape through the roof! I was exhausted that morning when we had the debriefing and diffusing and whatever it’s called … but then, the next day I was at work, I used force three times. These incidents become blurred, you get used to it.

Markus now notices that the Pepsi bottle is still on the table. It should be in the fridge, he grunts, because he prefers it cold. ‘It’s just because we were so distracted by the female presence!’ They all laugh. I blurt, ‘You’re all quite macho here, huh?’7 Markus replies,

No, this is nothing, believe me. They act differently when you or some other woman is around. When you are here it’s much calmer than usual. Boys be boys, you know, we are loud and joke around with each other, that’s just the way we are. And, maybe you have noticed, we have a very dark humour. It’s necessary to deal with all of this, people think we are harsh, but it’s our jargon.

We are interrupted by the news that the police are on their way with four people who have been stopped at the border in Padborg. The prison officers get up and go off to conduct the evening headcount and lock down the wings to prepare for the new arrivals. The police soon arrive with the four men, three of whom are escorted to a waiting room, while the fourth is called in for registration. The prison officers exchange some cordial jokes with the police, whom they seem to know, wave them off, and get to work. ‘He has got a lot of luggage’, John remarks, as he searches through the man’s confiscated bags. Wearing plastic gloves, John picks out prohibited items such as liquids, consumable goods, and sharp objects, and puts them in sealed plastic bags. The man asks in English whether he can keep his own shampoo. Alex, who is standing behind the computer desk and enters the man’s personal details into a digital file, remarks, ‘This is not a hotel, this is a prison.’ ‘But I’m not a criminal’, the man protests. ‘Yes’, says Alex, fixing his eyes on him, ‘yes you are. You are illegal here in Denmark and therefore you are a criminal. It’s criminal for you to be here.’ The man doesn’t answer this time. Instead, he asks if the officers can please give him back some papers that John is just about to put into a plastic bag. Markus, who’s standing by, now approaches the man, measuring him. John replies with a firm ‘No. The police need to check these papers, we don’t know what they are for, so they will have to check them and then you can have them.’ The man protests, ‘but the police said I could have them back!’ He now stands up, but Markus takes him by the collar of his sweater, pushes him towards the wall and then down onto the chair. ‘You sit down. You calm down’, he says in a firm, loud voice. The man is visibly upset but does not fight. ‘Listen. No papers now. You calm down!’ Markus and John order the man to stand up and then escort him to the solitary confinement cell,8 where they tell me he will be staying until he ‘calms down’. He is released into one of the wings one hour later once the other new arrivals have been registered.

The officers call the next man to registration. Alex takes his photo and measurements; the man is taller than Alex, which makes the other officers laugh. The man has a rucksack, in which John finds a bag of makeup. ‘This yours?’ John asks, visibly amused, as he examines its contents: mascara, lip gloss, and rouge. ‘You like makeup?’ He turns to the others: ‘Should we put him in the ladies’ department, perhaps?’ The man does not speak English, only some German, but he gets the message, and points to the bag. ‘Frau, Frau.’ ‘You stole it?’ John asserts, ‘He stole this, I’m sure.’ Here, I object. I’m unsure of what the implications will be if the officers keep insisting that the man has stolen the bag, and I believe I understand what the man tries to say. ‘He says the bag belongs to his wife’, I tell them. ‘Whatever’, John snorts; he has found a sanitary pad in the bag and is now even more amused. ‘This? You need this? You bleed?’ The three prison officers laugh. The man chooses not to react. Once the prison officers have unpacked all his belongings before his eyes, he receives his bed linen and is led down into one of the wings. Once they have left, Alex turns to me and explains:

Arabs – they are usually troublemakers. Africans are very proud – like you could see with that man who we brought to solitary confinement – but this was nothing. Sometimes we are down fighting them on the floor. They are frustrated when they arrive here and it’s better to show them straight away who’s in charge. But if it gets uncomfortable for you, you just leave, ok?

I assure Alex that I am fine, although I am boiling. I watch Markus bringing the next detained man into the room for registration, while John jokingly smacks Alex on the bum with his plastic glove.

This evening shift was significantly more eventful than most other nights I spent in Ellebæk. Yet, the incident is instructive for understanding how the violence endemic to the prison was reproduced in everyday life and materialised in prison officers’ degrading language and arbitrary use of force. In the situation described above, the prison officers – much like Fassin’s police officers – used provocations and so-called pre-emptive force in order to prevent detained people from challenging their authority, even though they gave no signs of intending to do so. Humiliating, racist, emasculating, and homophobic jokes were made for no reason other than provocation, and punitive measures – including solitary confinement – were used lightly and arbitrarily. However, officers did not consider any of the above to amount to ‘violence’, since their actions all fell inside the purview of the law; ‘force’ was the word they preferred to describe their own acts of legalised infliction of social, psychological, and physical harm.

Official statistics suggest that such expansive uses of ‘force’ were not exceptional. In 2019, there were thirty-nine reports of uses of ‘force’ by prison officers in Ellebæk, two of which included the use of pepper spray, and reported incidents of violence or threat of violence (Herschend, 2019). In the same year, solitary confinement was reportedly used forty-one times (eighteen people were held for more than fifteen days; see Dignity and Amnesty International, 2021). Solitary confinement – or the ‘special room’, as it was commonly referred to – entailed further intrusive and degrading measures, since those confined people were stripped of their clothes, allegedly as a suicide-preventive measure (see Stokholm et al., 2021). I do not know whether incidents such as the ones I witnessed, where it was clearly prison officers’ behaviour that provoked the physical confrontation, were included in any of these reports, and I doubt that their provocations were reported. What I do know is that the everyday violence in Ellebæk had effects on the minds and bodies of the people incarcerated. Philip, who was part of the healthcare team in Ellebæk, said, ‘You can observe how someone enters here and is 100 per cent human. But after some rounds in and out of solitary confinement and after having been subjected to force, there’s maybe 15 per cent left of that person. It’s like there’s a light that goes out.’ Philip, and the uniformed prison officers in Ellebæk, were well aware that the routinised exposure to physical force and degradation, and inadequate healthcare provisions, combined with the stress and anxiety induced by the unintelligible judicial proceedings that characterised Denmark’s restrictive deportation regime, had a detrimental impact on the people incarcerated. In addition, prison officers actively partook in breaking detained people down spiritually (through the protracted uncertainty, amounting to mental torture; and through degrading and dehumanising treatment) and physically (through physical force and violent anticipation). This dehumanisation performed important legitimation work for the deportation regime.

Without downplaying officers’ responsibility or excusing their participation in maintaining a racist and violent system, and without comparing their experiences to the conditions of those detained, I want to linger for a moment on how the dehumanisation of detained and deportable people operated on the subjectivities of prison officers. In the vignette above, just before entering the registration room and beginning the ritual of degradation and violence against the newly arrived men, Markus and Alex reflected on how they had become desensitised to the types of violence they witnessed and participated in inside Ellebæk. On the one hand, they saw violence (or ‘force’) as a necessity to maintain order in the prison because, according to Markus, incarcerated people ‘could only speak the language of violence’. On the other, they were well aware that this violence caused harm and also profoundly affected them. On a different occasion, I spoke to Markus about how he had changed as a prison officer, to which he answered ‘well you saw what happened in the Stanford experiment. How the guards couldn’t handle the power. It’s like that.’9 Scholars writing on bureaucratic violence (Arendt, 1963; Bauman, 2013; Gupta, 2012; Herzfeld, 1992) have highlighted how the division of responsibilities, de-individualisation, and routinisation of force enable state officials to remain morally and emotionally indifferent to the violence they inflict upon others. This way, violence which would otherwise have been perceived as exceptional or morally repulsive becomes normalised. Affective disengagement did indeed help some prison officers cope with the violence they were enacting; John once told me, ‘you can’t get too engaged … so you put a filter on instead. You focus on the daily routines, distributing rice, giving them an extra apple. I think that’s a survival instinct. Otherwise, it becomes overwhelming.’ And Mikkel explained, ‘Many of us have burnouts. Either you become too hard, some have this approach but that will eventually break you, it’s not sustainable. Others are too soft, and they get sort of filled up. Others just quit.’ However, the violence presented in this chapter is not primarily enabled through indifference (cf. Herzfeld, 1992) but through the construction and reproduction of racial difference. The neglect of detained people’s health and lives, and the affective ‘hardening’ of prison officers, are part of the operation of systemic racism, here disguised under ‘race-indifferent’ classifications of citizenship and (non)belonging (see Armenta, 2017: 83). The dehumanisation and violent treatment of racialised others were neither aberrant nor exceptional; it was constitutive of the political identity that officers were invested with as border guards of an imaginative white Danish nation.

Concluding remarks

Ellebæk is a place that, in the words of Weil (1939), reduces ‘a still human being into a thing’; an expellable and disposable thing. The state violence embedded in Ellebæk deportation prison operates through corporal control and everyday violence and degradation. These practices make incarcerated people disappear: existentially, as they are deprived of their humanity; and corporally, through their eventual expulsion. Central to this project is the racialisation of incarcerated and non-deported people, which takes place through the spectacular criminalisation, symbolic punishment, and routinised dehumanisation of foreign nationals racialised as ‘illegal’ criminalised migrants. In this chapter, I have shown how race operates as a fundamental and not-so-well hidden ‘organising grammar’ (Wekker, 2021), which reverberates in – but is by no means limited to – prison officers’ racial slurs and violent treatment of those incarcerated in Ellebæk, in the neglectful institutional setup, which prison officers readily admitted would be ‘unacceptable’ if those incarcerated were Danish citizens, and in the racist political discourse in Denmark which works to gradually deprive non-deported people of their rights and their humanity.

If race was an organising principle in the prison, it was also persistently denied by the prison officers, for whom racial matrices were perceived as a neutral way of ‘knowing’ those imprisoned and anticipating their actions. This way, racism was at once hyper-visible and depoliticised; similarly, the violence – structural, and interpersonal – used to control incarcerated people is codified as ‘force’ to lend it an air of legitimacy and proportionality. Prison officers were at once using this force and were subjected to it, with some of them readily admitting how it dehumanised not only those incarcerated but affected them, too. In this realisation of how violence shaped their subjectivities, we also see a shift away from the view of violence as ‘exceptional’ and ‘extra-legal’, which the codified language of ‘force’ suggests, towards a realisation of its systemic character. This does not remove the responsibility of staff for their violent and degrading behaviours but helps us understand how it has come to be, and how it has come to be acceptable, even legitimate. The systemic, racialised violence that underpins and is implemented in Ellebæk deportation prison needs to be situated within a global context, where deportation prisons are already embedded in what Khosravi (2019: 114) has called a global ‘infrastructure of racism’ that ascribes differential value to the lives of racialised border crossers. This is the way we can grasp how institutions such as Ellebæk, and the harms they cause, have come to be perceived as a normalised, if not necessary part of the national order of things.


1 For example, the image is used on activist merchandise: (accessed 9 August 2022).
2 The Aliens Act stipulates an initial time limit of detention to six months, with the possibility for the court to extend it to a total of eighteen months (§ 37(8)). Decisions on detention are taken by the police, who are in charge of deportation processes (since 2020 in collaboration with the Home Travel Agency), and must normally be reviewed by a court within seventy-two hours. The Danish Aliens Act (§ 36) justifies detention on the following bases: If a person who has applied for residence permit refuses to stay in the location designated by authorities (§ 36(1)), fails to appear before the immigration service or police for interrogation (§ 36(2)) or fails to ‘comply’ during an asylum process, for instance by refusing to clarify their identity, nationality, or travel route (§ 36(4)); or if they do not cooperate with the police in their deportation process (§ 36(5–8)). Danish immigration law allows for the detention of children. However, following critique from the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), who deemed Ellebæk unsuitable for children, detention of children is extremely rare. Instead of detaining, for example, an entire family, authorities incarcerate one parent while the children are held in the adjacent Sandholm asylum camp or in a deportation camp together with the other parent. People who are held for immigration-related purposes but who also have a criminal conviction are detained in police custody (§ 35).
3 In their 2019 report, the CPT concluded that the conditions in Ellebæk were ‘unacceptable’, criticising, among other things, the overcrowding, inadequate access to medical screenings for detained persons, and excessive use of punitive measures such as solitary confinement. In their response to this criticism, authorities blamed the ‘large turnover of detainees (with short stays) who commit substantial vandalism at the centre’ for having caused the standards in the prison to deteriorate (Danish Government, 2020: 3).
4 Roughly EUR 2,700 (EBT).
5 The officer’s remark repeats previous criticism that Denmark has received regarding automated detention orders and faltering legal procedures; see Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 2019; Ellebæk Contact Network, 2020).
6 The last part of this fieldnote also appears in Eule et al. (2019: 124).
7 The ‘macho culture’ was but one manifestation of how the togetherness among prison officers was gendered, which has also been documented elsewhere in research on ‘regular’ Danish prisons (see Andersen, 2017). This culture endorsed a ‘hard’ attitude towards incarcerated persons, manifested in offensive humour, and a readiness to use force (magt). Women officers were by default perceived to be ‘soft’ (bløde) and physically weak, and as such, perceived as a threat to the safety and security in the prison. This was a tension they were constantly forced to navigate (see Lindberg, 2022).
8 Ellebæk has three solitary confinement cells, which can be used up to twenty-eight days in case a detained person is perceived as ‘problematic or non-compliant with the centre regimes’ (cf. Canning, 2019b: 38). The rooms contain nothing but a bed pinned to the floor. Sharp edges are removed in order to prevent instances of self-harm. From the solitary confinement cell, detainees have to call on prison officers to go to the bathroom or go out for a cigarette.
9 Markus referred to the infamous prison simulation experiment that took place at Stanford University in 1971, which explored the psychological effects of authority by letting students act as prison guards and prisoners, respectively. The experiment was abandoned only after a few days, as students allegedly quickly began abusing their power. Not only the ethics but also the validity of the experiment and its research design have recently been called into question. Yet I interpreted Markus’s comment as a reflection on how state violence affects those who enforce it.
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Deportation limbo

State violence and contestations in the Nordics


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