Foreign national offenders and immigration detainees are at greater risk in deteriorating conditions in UK prisons and removal centres – and consuls could do more to assist them was the key message from a seminar hosted at the Cyprus High Commission by Rowland Brothers International and the Consular Corps of London
The UK has the highest prison population per capita in the EU (85,000) of which 10,725 are foreign national offenders (FNOs), making up 13 per cent of the total prisoner population.
The pressures of overcrowding have led to rising tension in prisons and FNOs are most at risk, said HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Mr Nick Hardwick, who conducts around 100 unfettered inspections in prisons annually.
Joanne Howells, who investigates custodial deaths at the Prison and Probation Ombudsman Office (PPO) said an upward trend in deaths in custody was notable. The increase is partly due to an aging prisoner population, which contributed to death by natural causes, but more alarming was the increase in suicides.
Rise in suicides
According to the Chief Inspector, incidents of suicide in prison were up from 72 in 2013 to 91 in 2014, an increase of 26 per cent.
Overcrowding, bullying and a lack of preventative measures, such as productive activity, due to staff shortages, were contributing factors for the “worrying” increase in suicides, homicides, drug-related deaths and self-harm, Howells told consuls.
The Chief Inspector said foreign national prisoners were especially vulnerable because they were more isolated and less able to communicate their concerns to the prison authorities – largely due to a lack of interpretation services. Contact with family back home was limited and lack of access to reading material was a common complaint.
In his presentation, the Governor of HMP Maidstone, a FNO-only prison, appealed to consuls to assist with FNOs in crisis. Consuls pointed out that often they were not informed of all FNO cases and appealed for a better system of notification from the prison service so that they could make earlier interventions.
Investigating custodial deaths
All deaths in custody are subject to an inquest, said Howells, who explained to consuls the procedure for investigation to uncover factors leading to the fatality.
A report into the cause of death takes 20 weeks for a death by natural causes (old age, terminal illness), and 26 weeks for other deaths (homicide, suicide). A draft is translated and sent abroad to families for consultation before the coroner proceeds with the inquest.
But making contact with bereaved families can be difficult, particularly due to the language barrier. In his presentation, the Governor of HMP Maidstone, a FNO-only prison, appealed to consuls to assist with incidents of deaths in custody.
Consuls commented that a lack of information from the prison service prevented them from providing timely assistance and requested automatic notification of a custodial death.
Consuls were also told that families of foreign national prisoner were less likely to be present at an inquest. Consuls can attend inquests on behalf of the family but this rarely happens.
Removal and deportation
Martin Scutt of UK Immigration Enforcement explained to consuls about deportation procedures of FNOs. An outcry over FNOs being released into society led the Government to put in place measures to ensure that the majority of FNOs with a custodial sentence of 12 months or more (or repeat petty offenders) would be deported after serving their sentence, with some limited human rights exceptions.
According to the Governor of HMP Maidstone, 30-40 per cent of FNOs are removed in the Early Removal Scheme (where prisoners serving a determinate sentence can be deported before they have served half their sentence) or the Tariff Expired Removal Scheme (where FNOs can be removed having served a minimum tariff of an indeterminate sentence).
Five to 10 per cent of FNOs are released into the UK, often for human rights reasons. More than half (50-60 per cent) fight deportation, but cuts in Legal Aid for FNO deportation appeals may reduce those numbers.
A worrying trend noted by the Chief Inspector was the length of time foreign prisoners are detained post-sentence pending deportation – up to two years in some cases.
The inability to obtain a travel documents was a key reason for the delay and the Chief Inspector appealed to consuls to assist them in providing travel documents. However, consuls commented that in some cases, the nationality of the FNO was in dispute and therefore travel documents could not be supplied without proper verification.
Most low-risk FNOs are held in immigration removal centres (IRCs) post-sentence, while those who had committed more serious crimes are detained in prisons pending removal. In the latter case, the Chief Inspector found that there was not enough distinction made between prisoners and detainees.
However, the mixed population of civilians and ex-criminals in IRCs was also problematic, said Scuttle. Consuls raised serious concerns about the risks posed to their civilians, and reported some cases of nationals suffering severe psychological damage due to sharing accommodation with ex-criminals.
Better communication with consulates
Several consuls remarked that the current system of information sharing between the prison service and consulates was inadequate. Often they were informed by family members of a citizen in prison and found it difficult to locate their foreign nationals. Due to language barriers, consuls said prisoners were often unaware of their rights to meet with a consul.
They also urged that missions are notified prior to the deportation of FNOs so that adequate arrangements could be made in their home countries to support their re-integration into society. Both the Chief Inspector and Prison Governor supported this suggestion.
Consular Corps of London President Bernard Silver introduces HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Mr Nick Hardwick CBE