Week 4: Prisons and Short Term Holding Facilities

We’re almost halfway through #Unlocked17. From all over the UK, you’ve been tweeting, writing and sharing your selfies to tell us how you feel about detention, and to help spread the word about Unlocking Detention. Thank you!

Prisons and short-term holding facilities

From 6-12 November, #Unlocked17 focused on the hundreds of people who are detained in prisons and short-term holding facilities across the UK.
Writing on the #Unlocked17 blog this week, Ali McGinley of AVID said this represents “one of the most hidden corners of the detention system“. Those held in prisons under immigration powers represent around 15-20% of the detained population in the UK, and yet – because they are excluded from official statistics – we know little about them: where they are, how long they are held, what happens to them after they leave.
Drawing on extracts of letters sent to AVID by those detained in prisons, the blog illuminates their isolation, and the particular challenges they face in accessing justice and support and making their voices heard. In the words of one person, held in prison: “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.”

Short-term holding facilities

We also visited the UK’s two residential short-term holding facilities, where people can be held for up to a week: Pennine House (Manchester) and Larne House (Northern Ireland).

Also this week:

Sam, of #FreedVoices, compared his experience of prison and detention:

I was in prison for three years and nine months.
I was in detention for seven months and they were the hardest months of my whole life. The trauma of detention will stay with me with me forever. It is indefinite.”

Nobody’s story

It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. This week, Isabel Lima shared the true story of Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo.

“Do you think this is fair?”

In the final blog of the week, Eiri Ohtani, Project Director of the Detention Forum, recounted a recent visit to Yarl’s Wood with Heather Jones, who has been visiting for many years:
“I explained my job to Alice and asked her if there was anything she wanted me to convey to the government, politicians and people who don’t know anything about immigration detention.
Alice thought about this for a while. I saw her push her carefully braided hair back behind her ears. ‘I have one question for them,’ she said. I inched towards her not to miss her words. Alice said quietly: ‘Do you think this is fair?’.”

Thanks to all those individuals and groups who are supporting individuals held in detention, indefinitely, all over the country.

From the end of the final blog:
“Tonight, thousands of people will be spending anxious night in the vast detention estate in this country, hidden from the public view, away from their families and separated from their friends. Alice’s single message to all of us was ‘Do you think this is fair?’.
We are not giving up. Join us.”

An open letter: “My name is Nobody"

For many involved in asylum and migration justice work (not for us!), immigration detention was a taboo subject for a long time and, in some quarters, it still is. One of the reasons for this is the mixed nature of those incarcerated. It is not just “model” asylum seekers who find themselves in detention: people from all sorts of experiences and life trajectories get incarcerated because they do not have a right type of passport or visa. But ‘As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy?’. Isabel Lima, visual artist and researcher, shares with Unlocking Detention her open letter about Nobody, a man with ‘many qualities and faults’ who finds himself in limbo. This letter is based on a true story and Nobody was anonymised for security reasons. 
I met Nobody in April, 2016 when I was making a film in Middlesbrough with and about asylum seekers and refugees regarding their accommodation and lived experiences in the town. The work was commissioned by Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art for their display, If All Relationships Were To Reach Equilibrium, Then This Building Would Dissolve, a project which explored the tension between free circulation and border control as well as the experience of exile and displacement, focusing on human rights, governmental policies, xenophobia, identity, and trauma, among other themes.
In the wake of allegations made public in The Times by Andrew Norfolk on 20 January 2016, that a Middlesbrough private housing sub-contractor for the Home Office, Jomast, had the properties’ doors painted in red, akin to the Yellow Stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, I set off to research what lied behind this story. It was then that I was introduced to Nobody.
I’m using the name Nobody in reference to Homer’s Odyssey. In the advent of the largest surge of migration in Europe since the end of WWII, we are assaulted by a constellation of cause-effect phenomena, which is too overwhelming to discern, apprehend or even process. The Odyssey is a story of survival against all odds and its major themes: the power of cunning over strength; the pitfalls of temptation; the tension between goals and obstacles; the misery of separation; and maturation as a journey, can help us make sense of current political and social landscapes in an intertwined and globalised world.
It also becomes a useful analogy through which to think about Nobody’s story.
Nobody arrived in the country as a 14-year-old, unaccompanied minor. He is originally from Eritrea and he left the country when he was just 12 years old. It took him 2 years to travel between Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya until he finally reached Europe. In 1997, he arrived in the UK, where he applied for refugee status. He was put into the care of Social Services, he was welcomed, and everything was looking promising.
Even though at that moment in time everything pointed to a fresh new start, Nobody’s mental health and life started to deteriorate. He was a teenager, who had fled his country, he was alone, with no family or friends, in a different culture, a different country and he remembers not having much support from the social services in the provision of opportunities to integrate within British life.
His behaviour started to become erratic, he started smoking, experimenting with drugs, and in 1998 he was arrested. He was released in 2000, got assigned a probation officer and everything looked like it was on the mend. Now he was going to be back on track, he started working and he kept working until 2009.
In 2009, the Home Office decided to take away his papers and permit to work, and Nobody was left wondering to what had he done in order to elicit such action… He was once again lost and confused, he could simply not understand what had changed. He was working for so many years, he had his refugee status and all of a sudden, he had nothing again. He was then told that his asylum claim had never been accepted, he was never given a work permit, his papers and ID were taken away and he just couldn’t fathom why. Were just the last 9 years a dream?
At that time, Nobody had already established a family with a partner and children, and these news prompted yet again another cycle of misfortune and uncertainty. Consequently, he separated from his partner, found himself homeless, and his circumstances kept deteriorating. By 2012 he got arrested for burglary of an office block and was given a sentence of 12 months.
As with any prison sentence, inmates are aware of their release date, therefore Nobody bid his time knowing that after 1 year he would be free to start again, or so he thought. On his release date, Immigration Officers were waiting for him and took him into custody in a detention centre. To the original 12 months another 18 months were added on top to Nobody’s punishment. Unlike the British prison system, detention in the UK doesn’t have a time limit. As stated by Dr Mary Bosworth, criminologist, the UK didn’t sign the European Returns Directive which means that there isn’t a statutory upper limit for immigration detention.
In theory people in the UK can be held in Immigration detention forever. Imagine, being incarcerated for no reason with no idea if you ever are going to be released, if you are going to be deported, even to which country you are going to be removed to? When finally, Nobody got released from detention, he was still not free, as new demands and impositions by Immigration were made. He was to be sent to Middlesbrough, on bail (which he never applied for or sought), to live in shared accommodation belonging to Jomast.
On top of this, Nobody was put on tag which meant that he was living with an imposed curfew whereby he could not leave the property between 8pm to 7am every day. This was also on an indefinite basis, as the Immigration services gave no timeline as to when the tag would be removed. Nobody was faced again with being alone, away from his children who were living in London, with no opportunity to see them, with no right to work and with an allowance of £35.00 a week…
These are only a few episodes from Nobody’s life but they are sufficient to bring forth the question of Empathy. As a society, how and who do we deem worthy of our empathy? When addressing the plight of asylum seekers and in order to draw empathic responses we are usually confronted with images and examples of law abiding families, composed of father, mother and children, with professional qualifications, that most of us in our privileged comfy seats, can somehow relate to.
I come to ask, what of those who act against our moral reasoning, those who as is the case of Nobody, commit crimes, those who are vilified by being single and male and therefore threatening. The account of Nobody’s story given above is in no way to excuse his choices, as we keep repeating to ourselves in moments of anguish or distress we always have a choice, but somehow is difficult to see it as such when you started the game already losing.
Nobody has many qualities and faults. He is a loyal friend, funny, caring and generous and it is true, I’m writing this story from a biased position, as we became and are friends. I worry about Nobody, he goes through cycles of resistance and trying his best in the navigation of life with no status in this ‘first world civilised country’; and moments of surrender where despair and anguish settle only to be relieved momentarily upon the intake of psychotropic substances. As highlighted by Ailsa Adamson, project manager of the Methodist Asylum Project in Middlesbrough, one of the biggest problems is simply retaining resilience in what it seems to be a completely arbitrary and endless process.
I worry and empathise with Nobody, because I keep asking myself what if I hadn’t been born with a European nationality, what if Nobody was me, wouldn’t have I taken the same choices as he did? If suddenly all my rights had been removed with no previous warning and I was facing myself homeless wouldn’t I succumb to moments of weakness and commit crimes and perhaps relish in escapist behaviour?
Nobody has lived in the UK for 20 years now, he still has no status, permission to stay, permission to live, and there is no foreseen resolution to his asylum claim. The UK government cannot deport people in the same situation as Nobody back to Eritrea, as firstly it is deemed an unsafe country that persistently infringes Human Rights, and secondly because he left the country illegally which is deemed a crime for which he would be persecuted for upon his return. Furthermore, the Home Office refuses to grant him the refugee status because he is deemed a criminal.
What is to become of Nobody in this impasse? Is he to live his life with no rights and consigned to bare existence? Is it ethical, legal, moral to suspend him indefinitely in this limbo? Why shouldn’t he have the right to be able to get up in the morning and go to work; to take a bus and go visit his children; to buy food at a whim; to let the sun soak his skin and feel at peace? As described by Nobody he’s living in perpetual torture. What does that say about our society when instead of protecting the most vulnerable we are the perpetrators of sustained crimes?

'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.

'There are no real seasons in detention. It's just a grey blur. White noise.'

Immigration detention is sometimes described as ‘administrative detention in prison-like conditions’.  And the Home Office can detain people under immigration powers in prisons. In fact, as at 26 June 2017, there were 360 people held in prison establishments in England and Wales as “immigration detainees”. But what are the differences between being held in prisons and being held in detention centres?  Sam, from the Freed Voices, contemplates on this question. This piece was originally published in May 2017 by Detention Action.   
There is a well-known quote from Souleymane, one of the older members of the Freed Voices group.  He’s said that ‘the difference between prison and detention is that in prison, you count your days down and in detention you count you count your days up…and up…and up.’
But what does this really mean…?
In prison everyone is always asking each other “what bird are you doing?”, which basically means “how long have you got left?”. If you’re there a long time you say “I’m doing ‘big bird’.”
In detention, everyone is always asking each other how long they’ve been there so they can try and work out how long they might be there for. They told I’d be there for a month, max. Well, that didn’t happen…
Everyone in prison is walking around with an egg-timer hanging over their head.
Everyone in detention is walking around with a stopwatch hanging over their heads – one of those digital ones where the milliseconds buzz like crazy.
In prison, its natural you associate with people doing similar length sentences to you. In that sense (and only that sense!), its kinda like a boarding school, with different year groups.
It can be difficult socially in detention. You check yourself from making relationships with people that might vanish the next morning. You cut yourself off.
You’re in prison to pay your debt to society but at the end of the day you’re still seen as member of that society.
You are invisible in detention.
If someone dies in prison or the prison services break their own protocol, there are investigations and people are held accountable.
Every day there are suicide attempts in detention. Every day the Home Office breaks their own rules. 30 people have died in detention and it barely makes the news.
I’m not saying it always works but there’s a ‘project’ in prison. You’re there as a form of punishment but there’s also an objective: when your sentence is done you are ready to reintegrate.
There are no objectives in detention. Only government targets.
There are incentives and privileges to behave in a particular way in prison. Your behaviour changes when people invest in you.
Every month I was in detention I got the same Monthly Report. And it was exactly the same as everybody else’s. It was a cut and paste job. I could have been anybody.
Some people used calendars or that old markings-on-the-wall thing. I used milestones. I had three birthdays, four Christmases inside. I went in around the time of the first Olympics and I remember saying to myself: ‘ok, you’ll be out for Rio Olympics.”
There’s nothing to hook your experiences on in detention.
There’s a lot of stress in prison but everyday you wake up you know exactly what you are doing until you go to bed in the evening.
Every day in detention is unknown. You turn into a headless chicken. Imagine hundreds of headless chickens all stuck in one cage. They’re all freaking out because they don’t know what’s happening and any moment someone could be grabbed for the chop.
I learnt the calls of different birds in prison so I could tell when the seasons changed.
There are no real seasons in detention. Its just a grey blur. White noise.
There is hope in prison – that you will see your friends and family again; that you will be part of the community again; that you can change.
Hope dies every day in detention.

Routine can be a form of self-preservation. Every morning, I’d get up, shave, brush my teeth…etc.
People’s hygiene goes in detention. It’s part of the deterioration. They’re not removing me, they’re not releasing me, they say I’m someone else. Who am I? Does anyone even care? Why should I bother then? Stop showering. Stop shaving. Why continue?
I went to prison a survivor of genocide with serious PTSD. They had a medical plan mapped out for my sentence. Every two weeks I had counselling. Even when I moved prisons they never missed a session.
Healthcare in detention there don’t do treatment plans because, who knows, you could be gone tomorrow.
Relationships definitely suffer in prison but that the sentence structure can help. People can say ‘when I get out in 3 months, I’m going to buy this ring and marry you’ or ‘when I get out, we’re going to move to Scotland and start a new life’. You can make promises you can keep.
I saw so many relationships break in detention. All the promises you made to your kids, for example – that you are going to be out at a particular time, that you’ll be there for this thing at school – they all get broken. After a while, they don’t trust you any more. Why would they? You can’t fully explain the situation to them because you can’t explain it to yourself. The Home Office can’t even explain it.
The yard-reality of prison hit me early on and I realised, ok, I need to concentrate if I am going to get through this. I have to use the structure they are giving me here to my advantage. I need to focus on my release date.
You can’t concentrate in detention. This cocktail of fear and anxiety and stress…it makes your mind melt.
It doesn’t work for everyone…but prison can make you.
Detention breaks you.
I was in prison for three years and nine months.
I was in detention for seven months and they were the hardest months of my whole life. The trauma of detention will stay with me with me forever. It is indefinite.


First week of #Unlocked16: short-term holding centres and prisons

What an exciting first week of Unlocking Detention 2016!
This first week was partly an introduction to this virtual tour of the UK’s immigration detention estate, but also focused on two of the most hidden sites of detention: short-term holding centres; and detention under immigration powers in prisons.

A changing landscape

This is the third year of Unlocking Detention, and there’s been considerable changes to the detention landscape since the last virtual tour.
Dover detention centre closed during Unlocking Detention 2015 (and Haslar detention centre also closed in 2015).
On 21 July this year, the government announced that Cedars – the ‘pre-departure accommodation’ centre near Gatwick, where families with children are held for up to one week – will close. A new unit for families with children will open in Tinsley House detention centre. You can read the Detention Forum’s statement on the announcement here.
On 8 September, the government announced that Dungavel detention centre in Scotland will close. A new “short term holding facility” will open near Glasgow airport.  You can read Scottish Detainee Visitors statement on the closure, and proposed new facility, here.
Brook House and Tinsley House (also known as “Gatwick detention centres”)  are being expanded by a reported 100 bed spaces.

Shining a light

What hasn’t changed is the need to shine a light on this still hidden injustice.  Unlocking Detention is a way of doing this, of starting a conversation, of advocating for change.

We’ve been delighted with the huge amount of positive engagement with the tour so far – please do spread the word far and wide!

As well as our regular blogs, articles published elsewhere, and Twitter this year we’re also on Facebook and Instagram!

Blog posts and articles

In just this first week of #Unlocked16:

  • We started the tour with a powerful blog post from Abdal, detained under immigration powers in prison: The Death Warrant
  • Eiri Ohtani, coordinator of the Detention Forum, wrote for the pan-European PICUM blog on why Unlocking Detention is needed.
  • Jerome Phelps of Detention Action wrote for Open Democracy 50:50 on the need to develop alternatives to detention with civil society to arrest the slide into the abyss of mass detention of migrants in Europe.
  • Kasonga from the Freed Voices group continued this theme with his piece on the need to “build trust, not walls“.

Short-term holding centres

In this first week of #Unlocked16, one of the hidden sites of detention we explored was short-term holding centres.  There are two types of short-term centres.

The first type is residential short-term detention centres where adults can be held for up to one week. There are residential short-term facilities including units at two long-term detention centres, and two stand-alone facilities called Pennine House (Manchester) and Larne House (Northern Ireland), pictured below.


You can read a great piece on Larne House from last year’s Unlocking Detention here. This was written by someone who is both part of the Larne House visitor group and is also at risk of detention themselves.

There are also over 30 other “short term holding facilities” which are generally, small complexes of cells, either at ports or at reporting centres (where asylum seekers and other migrants have to “sign on” at regular intervals).   People usually held at these for less than 24 hours; however, large numbers have been kept for several days in the busy holding centres at Dover and Folkestone ports.  There are even three (under UK Home Office control) in France, at Calais port, Coquelles (by the Eurotunnel), and Dunkerque.

Detention in prisons

The UK is alone in Europe for its routine detention of migrants in prisons under immigration powers.
There is no automatic access to on-site immigration legal advice like that provided in detention centres – many people held in prison under immigration powers don’t have (don’t even know they have the right to) a solicitor.
There is no access to mobile phones or internet, therefore communication with legal, emotional, community support is heavily restricted.
Some of the longest cases of detention involve foreign nationals held post sentence.
The exact numbers of people held in prisons under immigration powers each month are not published, but it is usually around 600 people.
To find out what it’s like, read this incredible live interview with Abdi who is currently detained in a prison.
This interview was very difficult to make happen.  Initially, Ben from Detention Action was due to speak to Ali but they lost contact – a common problem given the communication barriers in prison.  Then, when Ben spoke to Abdi, he could only do so for ten minutes at a time, because this is the maximum length of time a phonecall can take in the ward.
Abdi spoke of how he didn’t know that he would continue to be detained in a prison till the day of his release – expecting to be free, he was then told there was an “immigration issue”.  He remains in the same cell, surrounded by the same people, with other prisoners who feel sorry for him still being stuck there despite having completed his criminal sentence.  Abdi has now been detained for five months.  His criminal sentence was around this length as well, so Abdi has very literally served a double sentence.
Thank you to everyone who sent us questions to ask Abdi, and of course to Abdi for sharing his experience and his views.
Read the interview with Abdi here.

Live Q and A with Abdi, detained in prison

This afternoon, Ben from Detention Action conducted a live Q and A with ‘Abdi’ who is currently detained, under immigration powers, in a prison.
Ben asked Abdi questions that you, the public, had sent us via Twitter and Facebook and at the various Unlocking Detention events Right to Remain and Detention Action have held recently.  Thank you to everyone who sent us a question!

Ben could only speak to Abdi for ten minutes at a time – the maximum length of time those detained in prison can use the phone for. 

A question from AVID, the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees:

Next question is from someone who came to Right to Remain’s annual gathering in September:
do you know how long you will be in here? How long you could be in here?

Some questions from Scottish Detainee Visitors:
Are you in a separate part of the prison now that you are in immigration detention?  Are you able to leave your cell more?

Next up:
The Home Office say they only detain people in prison in exceptional circumstances.   Are there others there in prison with you, detained under immigration powers?

Another question from Scottish Detainee Visitors:
When were you told you wouldn’t be released at the end of your sentence? How did that make you feel?

Another question from the Right to Remain gathering:
Have you got any legal assistance?

A question from Kalina Shah @KalinaShah:
how many hours are you made to stay in your cell, and are you given any free time?

How often can you see your friends and family?  Can you receive regular visits?

A question via the Unlocking Detention Facebook page:

question 2


And another question via the Facebook page, thanks to Eleri of Swansea City of Sanctuary:

The Death Warrant

In this first week of Unlocking Detention 2016 (which runs until 18 December), we are shining a spotlight on perhaps the most hidden sites of detention: short-term holding centres, and immigration detention in prisons.
This first blog post of the Unlocking Detention tour is by Abdal, a member of the Freed Voices group.
Trigger warning: self-harm, suicide
I think being detained in prison is the most terrible thing any migrant can experience in the UK.
I will never forget when I got my ‘Death Warrant’. This is what we call the IS91 form which authorises your detention. Just when you’ve got your hopes up you’d be released from prison to see your friends and family…just when you thought you were going move on with your life….WHAM! You get the ‘Death Warrant’. This piece of paper means you are going to be detained by the Secretary of State. You are not going to be released. The ‘Death Warrant’ is usually given to you by a prison officer, who doesn’t really know what the paper is or what it means for you. It is very unlikely you’ll get any kind of explanation from an immigration officer. As a foreign national, if you are lucky, there’ll be an interpreter around to explain what’s happening. But this is rare. The only thing you understand is the ‘Death Warrant’ means you are not getting out on the day you were supposed to.
Instead, they are going to try and deport you.
On top of this great emotional shock, you have to quickly readjust (and comply) with the strict prison system you thought you were escaping. You have done absolutely nothing wrong, you have served your sentence, but you are a prisoner again. You are locked up – sometimes for 24 hours, only out for food and shower. Some days you are only allowed out for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter whether you are there under a conviction or not. Everyone complies. The prison system says that people held there under immigration powers have the rights and privileges of a ‘remand prisoner’. For me, this came with no benefits at all. Being held under immigration powers in prison means you can have visits without a visiting order, but my friends and family were so far away this had no impact. Even worse, my ‘change in status’ meant that all of the training I had previously had access to as a prisoner was now cut. This was a big deal for me. I realised very early on that education, and pen and paper, were powerful weapons. Just before getting my ‘Death Warrant’ I had signed up to do higher education courses. I had even gone to the first session. When I came to the second class they would not let me in. I was devastated.
In an immigration detention centre, you have possession of a mobile phone, access to documentation, libraries, lawyers, fax machines, photocopiers. A lot of the time there are big problems with these things, but in prison you have none of these opportunities to further yourself or your case. Even if you request them, the odds are against you. Firstly, the prison staff do not have any training in immigration matters. If you want to apply for bail, for example, and you ask an officer on your wing, most will not really understand what it is. If you are lucky, they will call the Foreign National Liaison Officer (who will probably be on holiday). The Foreign National Liaison Officer then calls the library. The library find an application and puts it in the internal post. It reaches the Foreign National Liaison Officer two days later. They put it in the internal post and send it back to the wing officer. He then brings it to the detainee.
Now, if that person does not understand English, they haven’t got a chance. If you can’t read or write, you are done for. To get someone to help you will take forever. It is best to forget it. It breaks my heart to say this, but it is the truth. And it is not a question of laziness – it is a question of hopelessness, exhaustion and the shame of having to always ask for help. (Asking for help also means the detainee might have to explain confidential information to prison officers and I knew lots of people who had serious problems with this.) Even if the form is filled out, you have to go through the same procedure again to get the document to court. The stress during this period is unbearable. Then if you actually get a hearing, you have to go through whole other psychological and logistical marathon, and this will almost certainly end in you being refused bail. This whole process is just one part of a much wider system designed to break you mentally and physically.
The terrible thing is that it often works.
At the end of it all, you are left with a feeling of helplessness and a sense of anger – at yourself, with the prison officers, with the people around you. You feel trapped in an endless cycle of punishment. It is very tiring. It is very frustrating. It can be very difficult to find the strength to continue fighting for your rights. Many people do not even know they have rights as a detainee when they are being held in prison. They have no idea they should have access to a fair trial or legal assistance, or that these rights are abused. There is nothing else to do but to give up. I saw many people self-harm in there. I saw people hang themselves. I tried to commit suicide a number of times.
Even now, I feel great sadness for people suffering in this situation. All I can say is, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Anyone who finds themselves in this place, still alive, still going, they should be extremely proud of themselves. It takes great courage to get out of that kind of hell. But it is possible. Just look at me. I’ve been there. I’ve gone through it. I won’t forget the injustice done against me.
I will use that anger to fight for a change.
This article was originally published in Detention Action’s ‘State of Detention’ report.

Prison under immigration powers: a plane crash

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.

New BID report on the hidden use of prisons for immigration detention

This week, Bail Immigration for Detainees (BID) published a new report ‘Denial of Justice: the hidden use of UK prisons for immigration detention‘.

As of the 31 December 2013, 2,796 people were held in immigration detention in immigration removal centres, in short-term holding facilities, and in pre-departure accommodation, but a further 1214 people were being held as immigration detainees in the prison estate.

Being detained and losing one’s liberty is bad enough when a person is held in an immigration removal centre, but immigration detention in a prison is unfair and unjust from the start.  Detainees held in the prison estate suffer from multiple, systemic, and compounding barriers to accessing justice, with an often devastating effect on their ability to progress their immigration case, seek independent scrutiny of their ongoing detention from the courts and tribunals, and seek release from detention, as well as on their physical and mental wellbeing.

This report lays out evidence for these practical barriers, which include but are not limited to:

  • no automatic access to on-site immigration legal advice like that provided for detainees in IRCs;
  • the existence of financial disincentives to legal aid providers who wish to work with detainees in prisons under current Legal Aid Agency contracts; immigration detainees routinely held under serving prisoner regimes;
  • prison regimes and restrictions that preclude the holding of mobile phones,
  • inadequate access to wing telephones during working hours, and a slow internal postal system in prisons, which delay and frustrate timely communication with legal advisers, the courts, and the Home Office;
  • lack of internet access in prisons which hinders legal research for unrepresented detainees, and makes cooperation with the Home Office redocumentation process very difficult;
  • Home Office escorting failures resulting in failure to produce detainees at bail hearings;
  • time limited videolink connections to prisons for bail hearings; delays in receipt of Home Office bail summaries as a result of slow internal mail in prisons;
  • loss of grants of Home Office Section 4 (1)(c ) bail accommodation as a result of production failures and listing delays, sometimes after several months waiting for a grant of a bail address;
  • Home Office failure to provide travel warrants enabling detainees held in prisons and produced in person at hearing centres to reach their Home Office Section 4(1)(c) bail address if granted bail;
  • failure to fit electronic tags within the prescribed two working days resulting in extended detention in prison.

Foreign national prisoners: the fear of being forgotten

By Francisca Stewart, 12 September 2014.  Francisca works for Article 1, a member organisation of the Detention Forum.

Published at OpenDemocracy, as part of a series of articles on unlocking detention


Too often for foreign national prisoners in Britain, the completion of a prison sentence is followed by a period of limbo behind a new set of bars while the state works out what to do next. Labelled ‘undeserving’, they are largely invisible.

Many people agree that those who commit serious crimes should be imprisoned. But what if you committed a crime and served your sentence, yet instead of being released you were held indefinitely without any idea when you would be freed? On top of this, imagine you were held in a foreign country, discriminated against because of your ethnicity, and treated like a criminal even after you had completed your prison term? It seems appropriate to ask why this nightmare continues to be a reality for many foreign nationals in the UK.

Mr Mohammed, a young torture survivor who has spent extended periods of time in both Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) and UK prisons, knows such treatment all too well. Although he has finally been released, winning a court case regarding his unlawful detention, the effects of discrimination and isolation from the outside world linger. He speaks candidly of his time behind bars, saying, ‘You feel forgotten and this is scarring for life.’ When interviewed about his experience, he spoke about the violence in prison and how he got used to dealing with bullying on a daily basis, from both other inmates and prison guards: ‘In prison, if you’re a foreigner, you’re automatically subjected to discrimination.’

Limited access to legal aid for the ‘undeserving’

It is especially hard for foreign nationals in UK prisons to access justice. A 2013 survey by BiD (Bail for Immigration Detainees) and ICAR (Information Centre about Asylum and Refugees) across the UK immigration detention system found that just 26% of foreign detainees who had been in prison were provided with any form of independent immigration advice during their time there, including guidance on their possible deportation. BiD also found through its legal casework that foreign prisoners face greater disadvantages than the average prisoner because they are considered of lower priority by the prison authorities. Quite simply, the penal system was not created with them in mind. Article 1, (named after Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights), is a charity working with Sudanese asylum seekers in the UK. It their experience lawyers can be reluctant to take on difficult cases in which defendants do not ‘evoke sympathy’ or are labelled ‘undeserving’.

Yet we know that every individual has the right to have rights.

Legal counsel is especially essential where an individual’s freedom has been deprived due to bureaucratic process. Too often for foreign national prisoners, the completion of their prison sentence is followed by a period of limbo behind a new set of bars while the state works out what to do next. Efficient and active legal representation can save the state money by handling cases more quickly and reducing the amount of time in detention. The end result costs the tax-payers dearly, resulting as it does in lengthy appeals to higher authorities.

Invisible behind bars

The population of foreign nationals incarcerated in the UK is largely invisible. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2012 there were 10,861 foreign nationals in UK prisons: 13% of the total prison population. The number of foreign nationals held in prison under immigration powers following the end of their prison sentence is not made public by the Home Office. However, in answer to a freedom of information request, the UK Border Agency confirmed that the number of detainees housed in prisons under Immigration Act powers was between 450 and 600 during 2011 and the first month of 2012. This makes up between 15 and 20% of the total prison population of foreign nationals.

Access to justice for these forgotten individuals remains serendipitous. It was only through the efforts of Article 1 that Mr Mohammed obtained legal representation. This followed two years without legal representation, for which he was in legal limbo. He was allowed out of his cell for an hour a day, and in that time he had to complete everything from showering to waiting in long queues to make phone calls (with little or no money). Consequently getting the legal aid to which he was entitled was a challenge. With Article 1’s help, he subsequently won his case for unlawful detention. Isobel Crowther, Head of Asylum and Research at Article 1, says ‘too many foreign nationals find themselves in this vulnerable position and we worry we are not able to reach all that we need to. It shouldn’t be by chance that they are able to access legal services, but a guaranteed part of the prison system.’

Lack of understanding

The penal system has little understanding of immigration detainees because they are organised to handle citizen criminal offenders. Mr Ibrahim, a young man who fled the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, spent two and a half years in prison after his sentence had finished, before being moved to an immigration detention centre. Before Article 1 saw him he had not had a visitor for four years. During his time in prison he claimed he was constantly subjected to racism and bullying by inmates and officers. He saved his cell mate from hanging himself three times. He had no legal representation for nearly three years. Now, although he has been transferred to an IRC, the pain in his voice is unmistakable. He explains that although he is happy to be out of prison, ‘I came to the United Kingdom only to feel like a slave.’

Immigration is a controversial topic in the United Kingdom, especially in the run up to the general election, and because of this it is often under scrutiny. In such an atmosphere, public sympathy for foreign national prisoners is scarce. In a climate in which hostility is frequently expressed towards law-abiding refugees and asylum seekers – those who are trying to escape from the forms of persecution one might expect to be deplored by traditional British values – foreign national offenders have little chance of securing popular support for their rights.

Yet many of the foreign nationals Article 1 works with are in the UK because of their dissident activity as democracy activists, challenging their own governments to abide by the rights most British people take for granted and of which they are proud. There are many, complex reasons for which they may fall foul of the law, including the challenges posed by the asylum system itself, in while they may find themselves trapped for years on end with no right to work and limited access to state support. These individuals have faced fear and abuse at home, and yet, ironically the very system they admired from afar, the British system, is now marginalising them in their hour of greatest need. Their shabby treatment reveals the ugly side of politics in the UK, where those hungry for votes distort the truth to manipulate an ignorant public.

It is thought the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will use his annual Conservative Party conference speech later this month to distance his government even further from the European institutions (the Bill of Rights and the European Court of Human Rights) that are the last resort for foreign national prisoners.

Making change: ‘You can never, ever forget’

Where there are organisations fighting to make change it is not happening fast enough, especially for those incarcerated beyond their lawful sentences, or for their spouses, children, parents, and friends, waiting on the outside. The Detention Forum and its members have done good work around ending indefinite detention, but there is little activity on the protection of foreign nationals in prisons.

So what conclusion from Mr Mohammed? ‘Detention, perhaps, is mentally harder than the physical torture. Maybe people will disagree with me, but I suffered both and I prefer physical torture than mental torture. With the detention, you don’t know when you’re going to get out, you don’t know anything, and you only receive every now again a paper from the Home Office just telling you that you will be continued to be detained. I think this itself is like torture. I think it’s worse than physical torture because it will mentally scar you for life. You can never, ever forget it.’