Why should a Bill going through the Nigerian senate concern us? Because it ties in with British efforts to empty UK prisons of foreign national prisoners by sending them home – without their consent.
Prisoner transfer agreements with foreign governments are generally seen as benign attempts to bring British prisoners home from excessive sentences in horrible conditions in nasty foreign prisons. But for the past few years, under pressure from right-wing Tories, the government has made strenuous attempts to reach agreements with countries such as Nigeria to enable prisoners serving sentences here to be compulsorily repatriated to complete their sentences in their home countries, so as to save costs, reduce the foreign national prisoner (FNP) population and make space for British prisoners. In 2009, only forty-one foreign prisoners in total were removed under voluntary transfer agreements which Britain has with over a hundred countries. The older agreements, such as those with Sri Lanka and Brazil, all stipulate that the prisoner concerned must either request the transfer or at least agree to it. But newer agreements, such as that concluded with Ghana in 2008 and with Rwanda in 2010, do not require prisoners’ consent before transfer. And in November 2009, the government ratified the Council of Europe Protocol which allows for transfer of prisoners to the thirty-four Council of Europe member states without their consent.
It is agreements with Nigeria and Jamaica which would be the big prize for the government, as these countries have the largest number of their nationals in British prisons – around 1,000 from Jamaica and 850 from Nigeria out of the roughly 8,000 convicted foreign prisoners in British prisons. At present, prisoners are transferred to Nigeria on a case-by-case basis, only if both governments and the prisoner all agree. In July 2009, the government even offered millions of pounds of funding to improve prisons in Nigeria, to persuade the Nigerian government to enter the agreement under which 400 Nigerian prisoners in British jails would be returned to Nigerian prisons – without their consent. The Nigerian government refused. (WikiLeaks revealed that the funding offer was made after the Nigerian government refused to negotiate unless Britain dropped an extradition request against James Ibori, a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, wanted by the UK authorities for corruption and money laundering. Ibori was extradited to the UK in April 2011.) Previously, the government had made a similar offer of funding for prison building to the Jamaican government in exchange for agreement over repatriating prisoners, but negotiations broke down over responsibility for prisons’ running costs, and as with Nigeria, there is a purely voluntary and informal agreement at present.
Now, the agreement with Nigeria seems to be in prospect again – evidenced by the fact that the Nigerian government is pushing through legislation to remove the requirement for prisoners’ consent from its transfer rules. A few opposition senators complained that prisoners’ fundamental rights would be infringed by compulsory transfer, but the measure was passed by the senate on 26 July.
Sending prisoners to their home countries to serve out their sentences is good for their rehabilitation, as well as for British taxpayers, say government ministers. This ignores the fact that many foreign prisoners have been in the UK for decades, have strong family and other ties here and should be rehabilitated here. A real concern is that compulsory transfer will severely impact on rights of access to justice. Although the Council of Europe’s compulsory transfer protocol requires a deportation order before transfer, this is not a feature of all agreements. And even if a deportation order is required, the existence of compulsory transfer, as well as putting pressure on Home Office officials and immigration judges to make and uphold deportation decisions, also adversely affects prisoners’ ability to fight deportation. Currently, liability for deportation is assessed at the end of a sentence, and is informed by prison reports on a prisoner’s progress towards rehabilitation as well as indicators of ties such as family and other visitors to the prisoner. That would change if deportation preceded transfer to serve the sentence at home: no evidence of reform or rehabilitation would be available to counter the facts surrounding the conviction. The concern is that deportation would be rubber-stamped even for those with strong human rights reasons for staying.
But in the UK, few MPs seem concerned at the implications of compulsory transfer for FNPs. A debate in Westminster Hall in June last year saw no one speak except Tories, and no disagreement with Kettering MP Philip Hollobone’s sentiment, ‘We want these nasty people back in their countries of origin. I am not particularly fussed as to whether they are repatriated, deported or removed – I just want them there, not here.’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Segregation policy for foreign national prisoners condemned’
Download a copy of the IRR’s report: Foreign nationals, enemy penology and the criminal justice system (pdf file, 217kb).
Read an IRR News story: ‘Segregating foreign national prisoners’
Read an IRR News story: ‘Pressure to deport foreign national prisoners’