Just days after the British government announced posthumous pardons for men convicted of homosexual acts, I sat in the chapel of Reading Prison, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated from 1895 to 1897. I was listening to the stage and screen actor Maxine Peake read from “De Profundis,” the 50,000-word letter Wilde wrote from his cell to his lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
I had been here before over the last few weeks, for an arts project that gathered performers to interpret Wilde’s letter. Each one brought something different to the role — steeliness, bewilderment, detachment. Ms. Peake’s Wilde had a lightness of tone, and drew laughter.
How much of that reaction, I wondered as I stood in Wilde’s cell after the reading, had been about her interpretation, and how much about the historic moment in which we found ourselves? “The laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws,” Wilde wrote about his sentence for “gross indecency,” and now the state was finally acknowledging that truth.
This counts as progress, even if a pardon is the smallest step the government could have taken. (Is an apology not in order?) And even if it only applies to the dead. The more than 15,000 British men still living who have been convicted under antihomosexuality laws — which weren’t overturned until 1967 — have to apply to be pardoned, an act that turns them into supplicants before the state that was their persecutor.
Yet standing in Wilde’s cell reflecting on what those laws had meant to him, even after his release from prison, I also realized what he shared with a group of people today who are incarcerated for doing nothing wrong — migrants in Britain — and saw the limits of the progress marked by his pardon.
I had previously thought of Wilde as a man who went into exile after completing his prison term. But when Wilde went to France, where it wasn’t a crime to be gay, he was a man fleeing unjust laws that could be used to persecute him. He was no exile; he was a refugee.
On Oct. 9, I listened to the actor Ralph Fiennes read “De Profundis,” his rich voice drawing out the beauty of the most elegiac of Wilde’s sentences. In one, Wilde imagines the end of his prison term: “I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the gardens.” Mr. Fiennes read those lines in a way that came close to filling the chapel with those blossoms, and made it possible to imagine Wilde sitting in his tiny, dimly-lit cell, his imagination already placing him in a garden at the end of spring. At least he knew when he would be released — at least he had that, I found myself thinking.
By contrast, in immigration removal centers throughout Britain today, migrants from around the world are serving periods of indefinite detention. A project I’ve been involved with called “Refugee Tales” pairs detainees with writers to give voice to their experiences. “Prison is better,” said one man, who’d been in both prison and removal centers, to the writer Ali Smith. “At least in prison there’s something to do. But not in removal centers,” he said, adding, “When you arrive they remove you from a life.”
Britain is the only country in the European Union that places no limit on detention time for migrants whose asylum claims have been rejected. It is not uncommon for people to be in custody from six months to two years — one Somali man was detained for nine years. According to the Home Office, more than 32,100 people entered immigration detention during the year ending March 2016.
The British government’s line is that these individuals are held immediately prior to deportation; in fact, more than half of those detained are released into Britain — some only to be detained again. There is some outrage about this, but the voices that vilify immigrants are much louder, and so the practice continues.
An Oscar Wilde who could write from prison, “I am to be released, if all goes well with me, towards the end of May, and hope to go at once to some little seaside village abroad,” is in a more fortunate position than the asylum seekers who don’t know for how long they will be held — and whether they will then be sent back to the places they fled or whether they will be let out, perhaps with tags to monitor their movements and always with the threat of redetention looming. One of the “Refugee Tales” detainees — who escaped his homeland after being threatened for campaigning against female genital mutilation — described this situation as limbo. “Do you know what limbo means?” he asked the writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. “It means the edge of hell.”
Technically, detention centers aren’t prison, but that seems little more than a formal distinction when you hear the detainees’ account of the conditions in which they’re held — isolation, locked doors, suicidal thoughts. The person Ms. Smith interviewed said, “The room there in detention has a window; sure. But a window without any air. The only place air comes in is the gap under the door.” Here is Wilde’s description of his prison cell in “De Profundis”: “Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.”
“Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation,” Wilde wrote in 1893. Two years later he was imprisoned. Now he has been pardoned, but the need for discontent remains as strong as ever.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of A God in Every Stone.