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While the number of people held in detention centres in the UK has decreased dramatically in the last five years, the trend towards holding people subject to immigration controls in prisons has remained constant.

According to Oxford’s Migration Observatory, there were 1,637 people detained under immigration powers in the UK in December 2019, including 359 people detained in prisons. By April 2020 the Home Office reported that the overall number of people detained in the UK had reduced to 708 people, but 340 people were still being held in prisons.

This number is the equivalent of another large detention centre. So why is no one talking about it? What questions should we be asking?

Fundamentally flawed

Most people held in immigration detention in a prison in the UK have already served a time-limited custodial sentence. An immigration official can then decide to detain someone in a prison under immigration powers indefinitely, as the UK has no time limit on administrative detention.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture describes the use of prisons to hold people under immigration control as ‘fundamentally flawed’.[1] Immigration detention should not be punitive, and individuals who have already served a sentence should not be doubly punished. And yet, people held in prisons are more likely to be held in detention for longer periods than those in the detention estate.

No mobile phone, no lawyer

People held in the prison estate face many additional barriers to accessing justice, to contacting friends and family, to accessing specialist supports or to seeking release. Access to the basic protections of the Detention Centre Rules also do not apply to those being held in prisons.

In 2017 research by Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) found that only 22% (4 out of 18) detainees held in prison had an immigration solicitor. In May 2019, BID interviewed 43 people who had been moved to an immigration removal centre after being detained in prison. Out of those 43, only three (7%) had received legal advice from an immigration solicitor whilst in immigration detention in prison. In the same group, an additional four people said they had received immigration advice from other sources (a criminal solicitor, a charity, BID, a prison officer).

NGOs and volunteers in detention

The increasingly reactive and ad hoc nature of immigration detention in 2020 has put immense pressure on detention NGOs to adapt quickly in order to reduce the human impact of an ever-changing landscape of detention facilities and procedures.

This year, we will be using our AGM to share lessons learned from our members nationally, some of whom visit people detained in prisons. We want to start a larger conversation about why detaining people in prisons is a problem that should no longer be sidelined.

Follow us on social media or check our website for regular updates on detention in prisons.

[1] European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) in its standards on the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, which sets out that holding immigration detainees in prison is “fundamentally flawed”

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