‘No one has even thought of me or visited me’ – immigration detention in prisons

When we talk about immigration detention, of course we think of immigration detention centres.  But hundreds of people are also detained as “immigration detainees” in many ordinary prisons.  Ali McGinley of AVID shines light on this forgotten group of people and their daily struggles to be heard.

“I do not have any visitors or friends to support me through visits. I went to court to hear for bail, judge stated that I do not have a surety to overcome immigration concerns.  I am very distraught and upset…….but what can I do?……I wrote to the Independent Monitoring Board, their reply was that immigration no longer transfer people from prisons to Immigration Removal centres. This leaves me very gutted and upset as I was not imprisoned by courts of law…..I have been detained for five months and no one has even thought of me or visited me.”

This is just one extract from the many letters AVID receives from immigration detainees, held beyond the end of their sentence, in mainstream prisons. The themes are common to those we hear from people in immigration detention centres: anxiety, frustration, uncertainty. The feelings of not being listened to.

But unlike their peers in detention centres, those held in prisons face even greater barriers to receiving visitors, to making basic communication with the outside world through email or phone, and to accessing justice. Because they are held in prison where many of the basic amenities afforded detainees are not available. And because – largely ignored by the system, by officials, and by the official statistics – they are even more invisible.

As of June 2017, the government was holding 448 people under immigration powers in prisons in the UK. The figures have hovered around the 450 – 550 mark for the last couple of years[1]. That is the equivalent to another large detention centre, but we know very little about these detainees. They are not included in the official detention statistics, enabling the Government to hugely underestimate the numbers of immigration detainees they are holding every month. Their absence from official statistics means we also don’t know how long they are held, or what happens to them after they leave prison.

For NGOs providing support, it is really difficult to provide services because we don’t even know where they are held. For the last few years, AVID has submitted quarterly FOI requests to try to find out more about where these people are, and these figures tell us that populations are highest in the London prisons.

For example, HMP Wormwood Scrubs had 39 immigration detainees in June this year, HMP Pentonville 38 and HMP Wandsworth 32. These numbers are stark – but consider the position of immigration detainees held further afield, sometimes with less than 5 in each prison. How do these men and women even begin to access the support and advice they need when they are in such a minority? Where would you even begin, if you were the only immigration detainee?

“I came here 14 years ago, they still haven’t finalised my asylum claim, which I have been eagerly awaiting for such a long time. They can neither deport me nor respond to the application, it feels like a death sentence as I have been detained by immigration ……with no decision made. My hands are tied well behind my back. I have been for immigration bail on three occasions, judges were reluctant to release me as they keep stating that I need a surety. What more can I do, if I do not have support on the outside?”

That these letters reach us at all is in itself quite an accomplishment. Perhaps they were lucky enough to have a sympathetic member of staff to investigate options and find us online, or they have heard of us through word of mouth from other detainees. The scattered, fragmented nature of detention in prisons makes it very difficult for those NGOs providing support to even begin to provide the basic information that would help them access services.

The same applies to legal advisors. Unlike in detention centres, where there are mobile phones and access to the internet, to help people communicate with friends, family or legal advisors, people held under immigration powers in prisons are denied even these basic rights. And while the regular advice surgeries offered in detention centres may have their own problems, they do provide detainees with 30 minutes of free legal advice. Sadly, even this provision isn’t available to the 450 detainees in prison.

BID’s legal survey of Spring 2017 showed that of 58 immigration detainees in prison, only 9 had received any form of independent legal advice. BID has also reported that most detainees are given less than two weeks’ notice that they will be held in detention at the end of their sentence, with many told on the day they were due to be released. The result is a sense of huge injustice, of double punishment, and of frustration – all of which can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and make continued detention extremely hard to deal with.

The recent moves towards detention reform have also largely overlooked the detained prison population, who remain excluded from many of the basis protections afforded those in detention centres. The Detention Centre Rules which provide, for example, safeguards about the use of segregation or isolation, or protections for vulnerable people such as the infamous Rule 35, do not apply in prisons. The adults at risk policy, implemented last year as part of a response to the Shaw review into the detention of vulnerable people, does not apply in prison. This is despite the well accepted prevalence of mental health issues within the prison population. It is therefore very likely that vulnerable people detained in prisons are being held without the support that they need.

“I’m in HMP Wormwood Scrubs and is hard, and I suffer. Bad food, and no one to visit me or send some support. It’s really stressful and the tensions are so high around here. I find it difficult to keep going”

There are some prison visiting groups in pockets of the UK, who provide a similar level of support to immigration detainees in prisons to that which is provided by many groups in detention centres. This includes emotional support and practical advice, a listening ear, and often signposting to specialist support. Groups like the Manchester Immigration Detainee Support Team have provided this support for many years, as has Liverpool Prisons Visiting Group. Other groups in London with capacity will also make the trip to visit detainees in prison – such as SOAS Detainee Support or Detention Action. The detainees held in prisons visited by these groups are in a lucky minority.

Prison visiting groups face a greater challenge in visiting as the levels of understanding and therefore acceptance of the visitors’ group role is much less well known in the prison system. It is also more difficult, on a practical level, to arrange prison visits. The number of prison visiting groups has therefore remained far fewer than those in detention centres, where visitors’ groups are a regular feature in the detention system. As a result, our work thus far in supporting those held in prison is a mere drop in the ocean given the numbers detained. And sadly, as a result of prison cuts and a system at breaking point it is becoming more and more difficult to establish new groups in prisons, and even well-established groups can find themselves at the mercy of staff shortages or lack of resources.

Last year, a group that had previously visited in HMP Lewes for over 16 years finally gave up its battle for access, having had that access withdrawn three years earlier because of pressures on staff. While the members of the community in Lewes were keen to continue, and no doubt those held in HMP Lewes would welcome the support, there was just not the capacity inside to facilitate the continuation of the group.

If the trend towards high numbers of detainees being held in prisons continues – and this would be despite the recommendations of HMIP, amongst others – we know that these letters will continue to arrive. Prison is a wholly unsuitable environment for those being held administratively for immigration reasons. The letters give insight into the daily realities for this otherwise largely forgotten group – a daily reality that includes exposure to violence, a culture of drugs, and high levels of self-harm. Add to this language barriers, the pressures of an impending immigration case and the anxiety of indefinite immigration detention and you can begin get a sense of the desperation felt.

An important part of Unlocked 17 is its ability to shine a light on the hidden places of immigration detention. This week, the focus on prisons and short term holding facilities allows this light to reach one of the most hidden corners of the detention system. The voices of detainees in prisons may be harder to hear, but they can’t be ignored, as they comprise around 15-20% of the detained population in the UK. It is time to be realistic about the extent, scale and reach of prison detention in this country, and to include these individuals in the plans for detention reform. Ignoring them is no longer an option if we are serious about leaving no one behind.

[1] Figures provided to AVID by the Ministry of Justice via the Freedom of Information Act.

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