No release from misery

Observations on foreign prisoners

In 2007, one-quarter of the people who took their lives in British prisons were foreign-born. Not only is this disproportionate (foreign prisoners account for one in seven of the prison population) but it also represents a worrying increase on previous years, raising unsettling questions about the experience of foreign nationals behind bars in Britain.

According to the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, the rise in suicides of foreign prisoners could be related to government policy. "The rise in self-harm and suicides has gone in parallel with the stronger focus on deportation," she said. "It is clearly tied to an increased insecurity of position, compounded by an absence of effective support mechanisms."

The spotlight turned on foreign prisoners in 2006 after a thousand foreign nationals were released instead of being considered for deportation. The then home secretary, Charles Clarke, lost his job and, in a desperate attempt to claw back credibility, the government declared that it would assume that all foreign nationals were deportable. The immigration authorities, already overstretched, were unable to cope with the e xtra volume of work, and foreign nationals were suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the threat of being forced abroad.

Palmela Belzer, who was born in Jamaica and served three years in Holloway Prison for drug offences, was only told she wouldn't be deported the day before her release. "When my family came to pick me up I didn't wait a second in case the authorities changed their mind," she said. Brought up in Holland, Belzer moved to the UK in 1996, where she married and had a daughter. Waiting in prison, she was so anxious about deportation that she began to self-harm.

"It was frustration," she said. "If you don't know when and where you're going home that's straight-up cruel. You live for that date and when they take it from you you've got nothing."

Many who should not have been considered for deportation were - including British and EU citizens - while others, anxious to return home, were left sitting in cells awaiting deportation clearance after their sentences expired, contributing to overcrowding.

The government and the media have portrayed foreign prisoners as a threat, an attitude encapsulated in Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's December declaration that: "Foreign lawbreakers should be first in line for the first plane out of Britain."

But, according to the prisons ombudsman Stephen Shaw: "Many are caught with no criminal history - they are the poor from Africa and Latin America who have been seduced by drug cartels."

Besides the threat of deportation, foreign prisoners face language barriers that can be an obstacle to learning about their rights. Because their families often live abroad, fewer visits are possible; calls home are expensive.

Last year, the government announced it had converted two prisons - Canterbury and Bullwood Hall - into institutions for foreign prisoners only, on the grounds that it would make it easier to deal with their particular needs. However, there are fears that this move will simply facilitate blanket removals and help the government to achieve its deportation targets for 2008.

Earlier this month in her annual report, Anne Owers concluded: "Unless there is clear direction from the centre . . . the care and treatment of the 11,000 foreign nationals in our prisons will remain unsatisfactory and inconsistent."