Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, says foreign prisoners in the United Kingdom are being unjustly exposed to racism and isolation and are not being adequately prepared to resume their lives on release.
She attributes these failings to the absence of a strategy for managing the huge rise in the number of foreign nationals who are serving prisoner sentences in the U.K.
In the nine years that Tony Blair has been prime minister, the number of foreign prisoners has increased by about 150 percent. Latest figures from the Home Office show that by the end of February, there were 76,670 prisoners in England and Wales. Of these, 10,265 were foreign nationals coming from 168 countries. Over half were from just six countries: Ireland, India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey.Twenty-five percent of the foreign national men and 80 percent of the women are being held on drug charges.
"Despite being held in record numbers, foreign prisoners often lack basic information about prison rules and the legal system, struggle to gain accurate legal and immigration advice and in the general confusion, many are held beyond their prison discharge date," Juliet Lyon says.
She says the Prison Reform Trust has strong welfare concerns for foreign nationals who are being held in prisons in the U.K., particularly isolation and racism.
Lyon gives foreign national women as an example and says, "It is thought around three-quarters of foreign national women in prison are young mothers separated from their children. Separation from family and isolation can damage mental health, and make an already long sentence feel yet longer. Racist treatment was also a recurrent concern of prisoners."
She tells of a prisoner who contacted the Prison Reform Trust recently because he has been held in prison for 10 months after his sentence, waiting to be deported.
Another prisoner who is also being held beyond his release date says he has not received written notification from immigration officials as to the length of his continued imprisonment.
"We respond to many cases of this kind, and yet the Home Office is still not able to tell Parliament exactly how many foreign nationals are detained in prison beyond their sentence," Lyon says.
She accuses the Home Office and the prison system of failing to prepare foreign prisoners for life after prison.
"Language problems prevented them taking part in courses to prevent their offending behavior and because of uncertainty over whether they would be deported or not, they were not considered for pre-release classes," she says.
Enver Solomon of the Center for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London, writes that there is a whiff of xenophobia about how the media is discussing and reporting the story of foreign national prisoners.
In a letter in The Guardian (April 27), he says the real story at the heart of the matter is the way the prison and immigration authorities have, for many years, regarded foreign prisoners as undeserving second-class inmates and disregarded their rights.
"If there was adequate immigration and legal advice available in prison, the current systemic failing could have been avoided," Solomon says.
John O., a campaigner for the rights of refugees and immigrants with the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (N.C.A.D.C.) adds that the way the Home Office is dealing with foreign prisoners is unfair, unjust and discriminatory:
"Breaking the law is not acceptable but the law must be fair in how it punishes someone who breaks the law. Sentencing must be consistent and not discriminatory.
"Sentencing a U.K. citizen to 10 years for a crime, and when the person has served the sentence, … [releasing the person] back into the community with appropriate safeguards, is correct. However, to sentence a foreign national to 10 years for the same crime, and when the person has served the sentence, deport them from the U.K., is discriminatory and unjust," he says.
It is a fundamental principle of U.K. law that a person cannot be punished twice for the same offence — this, however, does not apply to foreign nationals living in the U.K.
"If they commit a crime and are sentenced to imprisonment, they can also face a secondary punishment of deportation," John O. says.
Deportation can take place in two ways. It can be recommended by a court following conviction for an offence punishable with imprisonment or, where the court makes no recommendation, the Home Office can serve a deportation notice on the grounds that the prisoner's presence in the U.K. is not "conducive to the public good."
Deportation following conviction can be irrespective of how long a person has lived in the U.K. and irrespective of their family ties in the country.
In many cases the Home Office will argue that to keep families together, partners and children of convicted criminals can uproot themselves and go and live abroad often in countries they have never been to.
The courts in these cases can often disagree with the Home Secretary when he tries to deport someone with family ties in the U.K.
"Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life. At times it is not feasible, realistic, practicable, reasonable or sensible for the whole family to uproot and leave the U.K. because of the conviction of the head of the family," John O says.
In one case where the Home Secretary's intention to deport was rejected, the adjudicator said: "… deportation at the end of a 10 year sentence may indeed come close to a double punishment — and one that would appear to be, largely, reserved for persons from ethnic minorities."
This article was first published in the World Press Review.