AVID Training
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On Tuesday 10th November we held our AGM followed by a webinar on the subject of immigration detention in prisons. Around 60 people attended, including dozens of volunteers in detention from more than ten visitors’ groups across the UK.

The panel introduced the subject of detention in prisons from a legal, visiting and campaigning perspective:

  • Tom Nunn: AVID Trustee and Solicitor, Duncan Lewis
  • Clara Della Croce: Prisoner and Detainee Project Co-ordinator, Asylum Welcome
  • Michael Darko: AVID Trustee, Campaigner and Expert by experience

So, what did we learn about detention in prison?

1) The moment your custodial sentence ends, your indefinite detention begins: People deemed as ‘foreign’ nationals in a prison can continue to be held indefinitely under immigration powers after they have served their sentence. Effectively, after completing the same sentence as a British national, they are doubly punished.

As Clara put it, "The moment when someone transitions to being held under immigration powers in a prison is atrocious because that is when someone's sentence becomes indefinite. They are double-penalised with incarceration because they are 'foreigners'. It's a violation of their human rights."

2) You may not even realise you are being held under immigration powers: People held under immigration powers in prisons are hidden in plain sight, because the Home Office doesn’t really want people to know this is happening. Tom had a client who had been held under immigration powers for 12 months after the end of his sentence without even realising it. Even his probation officer thought he was still in serving his custodial sentence.

The experience is doubly dehumanising. As Michael put it, “When you are detained under immigration powers in a prison, even the benefits of the duty of care shown by the prison to prisoners evaporates.”

3) You cannot contact a lawyer easily: There is no Detention Duty Advice scheme in prison so there are no lawyers who are contracted by the legal aid agency to go into prison to see if there are people that they need to represent. The primary way for someone to find legal support if they don’t have a visitor is by sending letters out to different solicitors’ firms, hoping that someone will take the case. One exception would be where a local firm chooses to run a probono clinic at HMP Huntercombe.

4) Once you get a lawyer there are still huge barriers to communication: In prison you can only phone out, not in. Someone detained in prison needs to ask to have an external number approved and added to their PIN number before they can call out. They then must save up enough credit to make a longer call to a lawyer. Recently it's been taking over 5 weeks for a number to be approved on someone's PIN. These calls often cut after ten minutes and with no legal visits due to Covid, it is often impossible to speak to your lawyer.

5) Visitors can provide solidarity and friendship: Visiting someone in prison may at first seem different to visiting someone in an immigration removal centre, but, as Clara described, volunteers she worked with began to realise that "the needs in prison were perhaps even more acute in this situation where people are isolated and in fear of imminent deportation.

6) Volunteers can be a bridge to the outside world: In a context where access to information is limited, volunteers can signpost people detained in prison to other specialist services, and even provide additional language support.

7) Remote visiting during lockdown: During lockdown Asylum Welcome were able to begin ‘visiting’ people in HMP Huntercombe via video calls. Despite some connectivity difficulties, even this show of solidarity may provide solace in the face of the Covid-19 prison regime, where most people were being held in their cell for 23 hours a day. The mental health impact of such extreme isolation, especially for people facing language barriers and the threat of deportation cannot be ignored.

8) This is no longer a sideline issue: The number of people held in prisons under immigration powers now comprises more than a third of the number of people held in detention overall in the UK. With Morton Hall being converted into an Foreign National Offender prison in 2021, this number is likely to increase. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture describes the use of prisons to hold people under immigration control as ‘fundamentally flawed’ and yet this is now a major component of the UK’s detention system. More about this in our previous post.

9) Campaigners should hold parliamentarians to account: As Michael explained, “It’s easy for parliamentarians to lay the blame on the Home Office, but it’s them that gave the Home Office its power. So we really have to take this as a clear issue: that the power needs to be clawed back from that department so that the parliamentarians have nowhere to hide.”

10) We need to campaign inclusively: The government often uses rhetoric around detaining ‘foreign national criminals’ to defend its use of indefinite detention in general, masking the fact that immigration detention is administrative and (supposedly) not punitive. The recent comments made by Priti Patel that stigmatise the work of immigration lawyers are another example of the very common narrative that so-called ‘foreign national offenders’ do not deserve the same justice as British nationals. To dispel this idea, Michael says we have to be prepared to campaign inclusively:

“The notion that someone that commits crime looks a certain way is not just a theory, it is a subconscious assumption that affects how we react. So we really have to ask ourselves why are we afraid to bring this topic up? Is it because we are worried about scaring funders away? Then we should also be asking funders why they do not want to fund an organisation that is standing up for the human rights of those who have been losing their humanity because they committed a crime.”

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