Lawyers and charities have warned that there are hundreds of immigration detainees being held in jails after completing their prison sentences and unable to access legal advice.
The government is being urged to release people who are being held in prisons under immigration powers, with the warning that it is ‘impossible’ for the detainees to access legal advice because legal visits are no longer permitted due to the pandemic.
Non-British nationals who are sentenced to jail for longer than 12 months in the UK are liable to be deported, and can be detained under immigration powers at the end of their custodial sentence pending their removal from the country.
Such individuals are normally transferred to an immigration removal centre, where conditions are less restrictive and they also have better access to legal advice. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, the Home Office has sought to hold fewer people in removal centres for Covid-19 safety reasons, placing many in prisons instead. The number of people detained in prisons under immigration powers has increased significantly in the past year, rising by 43 per cent to 434 in the 12 months to 30th September 2020.
Conditions in prisons have become significantly more restrictive, with most adult inmates now locked in their cells for 23 hours a day and visits from legal representatives no longer permitted.
A letter signed by 40 organisations and lawyers calls on the home secretary and the justice secretary to ‘immediately’ release people held in jail under immigration powers, warning that immigration detainees have been ‘left to navigate the complex process of challenging their detention and deportation without any form of assistance whatsoever”.
The letter, whose signatories include a number of lawyers and charities such as Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Prisoners’ Advice Service, states: “Immigration legal advice and representation, almost impossible to access at normal times, is currently impossible because legal visits are no longer permitted. “It is clear that immigration detainees, none of whom are serving criminal sentences, should be immediately released from prison”.
With recent data published it also points out that the coronavirus is spreading more rapidly than ever through prisons, showing that 1,529 people have now contracted the virus across 89 sites in the prison estate.
According to the Ministry of Justice, more people in prisons tested positive for Covid-19 in October 2020 than in the entire period from March to September.
One such individual who was in prison under immigration powers for six months this year after completing his sentence, and released on bail four days ago told how he had struggled to access any legal advice, and only managed to do so when his brother managed to contact a charity on his behalf from outside the prison.The 21 year old man, said that he tried to get help but felt as if the staff were ignoring him. They told him they were going to come and see him but they didn’t.
They just treat you like another prisoner. He was in there for longer than he should have been because he couldn’t get any legal advice. It is the worst thing, especially when you know that you have already served your sentence.
Director at Bail for Immigration Detainees, Celia Clarke, said: “Every day our caseworkers hear from people who are detained indefinitely in prisons under severely oppressive lockdown conditions. Understandably many are struggling to cope”.
“To make matters worse, they are denied access to any legal support to secure their release or challenge deportation. If these people were British citizens they would be released at the end of their custodial sentences. Many of them have lived here most of their lives.
A government spokesperson said: “Individuals held in prison for the purposes of immigration detention are usually there because they have been accessed as unsuitable for the conditions of immigration removal centres, because they are high risk or high harm. There are dedicated Home Office teams working in prisons to support them, including with access to legal advice”.
“The protective measures that have been put in place in prisons have been guided by public health advice, and have limited the spread of the virus and saved lives”.