Prison under immigration powers: a plane crash
These piece was written anonymously for #Unlocked15 by a member of the Freed Voices group – a group of experts-by-experience who are dedicated to speaking out about the realities of detention in the UK and campaigning for detention reform.
I am originally from a country in West Africa. I was trafficked as a young boy and taken to Eastern Europe. My captors locked me in a basement, fed me like a dog, and beat me.
I escaped my traffickers with the help of a man who knew them well. He took the passport my traffickers had made illegally so that I could work for them, and gave it to me. I didn’t know anything about borders. I didn’t know anything about asylum. I didn’t know anything about passports! I had never held one before in my life.
When I got to Heathrow airport, border control just let me pass through. That just reconfirmed what I already thought – that my identification was genuine.
A few years later I left the UK to visit the man who had helped me escape my traffickers. I went to Europe to meet him but when I came back into the country, and went through passport control again, they stopped me. They told me my passport was fake and they arrested me. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t understand what was happening. Looking back now it’s almost funny because I argued, I really thought my passport was real. I didn’t even know it had been obtained illegally.
I was charged with possession of false documents and held in prison on remand for five months. It was very, very difficult for me. It was hell. I was very scared. I tried to commit suicide several times.
Finally, I went to court. I was sentenced for 18 months but because I had already done five and you usually only do half a sentence, I had four months still to do. It was around the same time that Prince William married Kate. I remember, everyone was so happy.
When I still think of it today, I still can’t believe I survived prison. I had never even stolen a sweet before. And yet, I found myself in a Category A prison, alongside murderers and hardcore drug-dealers, people with firearms convictions.
I spent my whole time inside counting down the days until my release. I saw people lots of people freed when their sentences were finished. I had no reason to think it would be any different for me. I was always looking forward, always thinking what I would do the moment I came out: I’d go back to school, continue my studies, start to integrate again, get in contact with my old girlfriend…I had plans.
Finally, the day came. I was excited, wondering whether I was going to leave early in the morning, or in the afternoon in front of everyone. I packed all my stuff up. I sat, imagining how I would walk out the gates.
It went past three, four o’clock and I was still sitting in my room so I asked a guard what was going on. He went away for a bit to find out then came back and told me I wasn’t going anywhere. I was being detained in prison under immigration powers, and I would be given a deportation order to remove me from the UK.
It was like a plane crash.
They didn’t tell me how long I would have to remain in prison for, or what was next. There was no legal advice. There was nobody to tell you your rights. I don’t think the prison guards even knew what it meant for me to be ‘detained’.
I started to think I would be there for ever. It felt like there was no way out. I started to doubt myself. ‘Maybe I did do something wrong? Maybe I am guilty.’ Nothing made sense. I saw people who had serious, serious crimes get shorter sentences then me and leave when those sentences finished. Why was the balance of justice so heavily weighed against me? Why was I being punished again? Because I was black? Because I was foreign?
I began to ask around and met other guys who were being kept in prison after their sentence had finished. Some had been there for one, two years.
I felt there were similarities with my treatment by my traffickers back in Eastern Europe. I was still being locked up like an animal. I was still being treated without respect, without dignity. Again, I had no control.
All of my traumas came back. All of those suicidal thoughts, night-terrors, flashbacks, they all flooded back. After two weeks or so, the prison guards had to call immigration because they said they couldn’t deal with me anymore.
Usually when people finish their time in prison they are released back into the community and given a probation officer. When I was released from prison, I was transferred to detention – she was my probation officer. First, they moved me to Colnbrook IRC and kept me there for over a year. Then they moved me to Harmondsworth for more than a year Then Haslar for three weeks. Then back to Colnbrook for another year or so. I was altogether 37 months in detention.
Still, those few weeks in prison under immigration powers after my sentence finished stand out. I can’t even tell you how excited I was to get out of prison, how high my expectations were at that point. And how low they fell after being told I wasn’t going anywhere. I felt my life shatter in front of me.
In that moment, my faith in British justice vanished. Even now, when I read newspaper headlines about how ‘this person is guilty’ or ‘this person has been sentenced to X years in prison’ I always doubt it. Did they really commit a crime? Did they really do anything wrong? What’s the full story here?
The latest immigration statistics show 373 people were held in prison this year under immigration powers. Many of them have done something wrong, all of them have paid for it with a loss of liberty. But being foreign isn’t a crime. You can’t continue to punish someone just because they don’t have the right colour passport.
This figure sends out another message: we, the British government, will always side with a British criminal, however serious their crime, over a migrant, however light their crime. This is a question of politics. Migrants who have a criminal record are hot property. They are political commodities. The government just wants to say we deported ‘X’ number of foreign criminals the year. Nobody explores the human stories behind those figures. No-one is interested in finding out about what those those crimes were or why they were committed.