Segregating foreign national prisoners

Segregating foreign national prisoners


Written by: Frances Webber

Government plans to concentrate foreign national prisoners in a few prisons, currently being implemented under a secret agreement, are likely to lead to segregation and exacerbate prisoners’ isolation.

A restricted but recently leaked document, the ‘Service Level Agreement between the Ministry of Justice, the National Offenders Management Service (NOMS) and the UK Border Agency to support the effective management and speedy removal of foreign national prisoners’, reveals government plans to concentrate foreign national prisoners in just a few of the country’s prisons, to make it easier to deport them when they complete their sentences.

The agreement, signed on 1 May 2009 and apparently operational since then, represents the government’s latest attempt to tackle the political hot potato of foreigners in British jails following the scandal over the failure to consider hundreds of foreign offenders for deportation in 2006 which led to the resignation of home secretary Charles Clarke.

At the time of the ‘foreign prisoners scandal’, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers referred to ‘systemic failures, at all levels, in the support, care and management of foreign national prisoners’. In a thematic review published in November 2006, she said that for five years the Prisons Inspectorate had been urging prisons, the Prison Service and NOMS to draw up and implement national standards for the conditions and treatment of this group of people, while the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (now the UK Border Agency – UKBA) had been dilatory and inefficient. She pointed out that ‘a national strategy for managing foreign national prisoners should not begin and end with the question of … deportation … foreign nationals, though a divergent group, have a recognisable cluster of specific needs’, the three most prevalent and serious across all groups being ‘language, family links and immigration’.

However, all government efforts since 2006 have been focussed on deportation. In an effort to convince the electorate that the government is tough on foreign criminals, the law was changed in 2007 to make deportation mandatory for any foreigner sentenced to over 12 months in prison or convicted of one of a vast number of specified crimes. For these prisoners, deportation can only be avoided by demonstrating that it would result in a breach of the human rights of the proposed deportee. In 2005, around 1,000 foreign prisoners were deported, and in 2006, around 2,500. The number rose to 4,200 in 2007, and 5,400 in 2008. But with 11,500 foreign prisoners in British jails in July 2008, the government has continued to seek ways of increasing the rate of deportation.

The document was drawn up in response to a priority review in October 2008 from the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU). The basic idea is to bunch together foreign national prisoners, including remand prisoners, in selected prisons on the basis that keeping foreign prisoners together makes their deportation easier. The agreement identifies two prisons, HMPs Canterbury (in Kent) and Bullwood Hall (in Essex) to be exclusively used for foreign national prisoners, and six other ‘hub prisons’, HMPs Risley (north west), Hewell (west Midlands), Morton Hall (east Midlands), the Mount (eastern region), the Verne (south west) and Wormwood Scrubs (London region) where foreign national prisoners will be concentrated. Specialist regional immigration teams are to be ’embedded’ in each of these prisons, so that deportation can be initiated and concluded more quickly. Another thirty-six prisons, identified as ‘spoke’ prisons, may also take foreign national prisoners and a protocol sets out how UKBA will operate within those prisons. Category A and D prisons, young offenders institutions and women’s prisons are excluded from the rationalisation process. Transfer of foreign national prisoners out of local prisons into the ‘hub’ and ‘spoke’ prisons was due to be completed under the agreement by 30 June 2009.

The agreement formalises a process which was already in train. In August 2008 the Times reported that Canterbury prison had been converted to hold only foreign inmates, and that more than half of the prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, the Verne in Dorset, Pentonville, Morton Hall, Brixton and Holloway jails were foreign. By December 2008, according to the Daily Telegraph, there were ‘three jails reserved exclusively for prisoners from overseas: Canterbury in Kent, Bullwood Hall in Essex and Morton Hall in Lincoln’.

The segregation of foreign prisoners in selected prisons, apart from being inherently undesirable, is likely to lead to lower standards of care and support in ‘foreign national prisons’. It also means that foreign prisoners are likely to be moved many miles from relatives and friends, increasing their isolation. The broad definition of ‘foreign national prisoners’ to include remand prisoners means that segregation in a ‘foreign national’ prison can take place even before prisoners are convicted. This creates significant difficulties for preparation of legal cases for trial, as well as punishing foreign remand prisoners merely for being arrested, whether or not they are ultimately found guilty, by removing them from local prisons.

Related links

Read the Service Level Agreement between the Ministry of Justice, the National Offenders Management Service (NOMS) and the UKBA to support the effective management and speedy removal of foreign national prisoners (pdf file, 672kb)

Dispatches from the Dark Side by Gareth Peirce. Verso £9.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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