Once they were a largely forgotten group of inmates among the thousands serving sentences in jails in England and Wales. But three years ago, foreign prisoners were thrust into the spotlight when the Home Secretary at the time admitted that more than 1,000 had not been considered for deportation at the end of their sentence.
The ensuing furore cost Charles Clarke his job and the consequences of his disclosure are still reverberating through Parliament and the Prison Service.
For the the pendulum has swung dramatically. The deportations are coming thick and fast, sometimes on chartered flights, and new immigration removal centres are being built to the standards of Category B jails — a level of security more commonly associated with hardened criminals rather than illegal immigrants.
The head of the UK Border Agency makes regular reports to MPs on how many foreign national prisoners are being removed from the country. Members of the agency and immigration officers now work in jails holding large numbers of foreigners, with the aim of ensuring swift deportation when they finish their sentences.
As strategic director of the criminality and detention group at the agency, David Wood has overall responsibility for immigration removal centres, which includes deportations of illegal immigrants and foreign prisoners. To him and his team has fallen the task of trying to increase the momentum of removals in the run-up to a general election in which immigration is set to be a key issue. Last year a record 5,400 foreign prisoners were removed — three times greater than the figure for 2006. Mr Wood, a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police, said: “We are not standing still. Some nationals are difficult to remove. It is a challenging task but we are on track to remove the same number this year.”
He believes the agency has become more adept at dealing with foreign prisoners and is now notified when someone is remanded in custody and again when they are sentenced, so preparations can begin immediately for their removal.
More recently, Mr Wood reached an agreement with the Prison Service to have large concentrations of foreign nationals in eight jails. These operate as hubs, with spokes going out to a further 22 prisons holding other foreign criminals. Mr Wood said: “We have our staff in those hub prisons … We are interviewing [foreign nationals] within five working days of the start of their sentence.”
Staff hold surgeries in the jails, telling prisoners given more than a 12-month sentence, or a shorter term for drug or gun crime, that they will be automatically deported at the end of their sentence.
But the interview is only the start as the path to removal is strewn with obstacles, including some laid by the prisoners themselves. There is an appeals process, for example, and Mr Wood says the “ingenuity of individuals” to launch challenges in the courts should not be underestimated.
Meanwhile, some prisoners will destroy their travel documents and others will lie about their nationality. Mr Wood said: “Often these people, particularly if they are unlawfully in the country in the first place, would not have a travel document. They may not even have given their correct name and occasionally people say they come from a different country.”
In these cases, Mr Wood’s staff will have to work to establish where the prisoner really comes from. In other cases, they have to obtain travel documents from foreign embassies and diplomatic missions.
There is a good relationship with most countries but Mr Wood admits some have much tougher rules: “Some … are adamant that they want their nationality and identity established and they want to make their own inquiries in-country to establish that for themselves.”
Delegations from foreign states even travel here to interview prisoners, in an effort to confirm that an inmate is actually from their country.
Foreign national prisoners are removed from Britain every day of the week on scheduled flights, but the agency charters planes for those who still resist deportation, Mr Wood said.
“There are some individuals determined that they will not be removed. They play up, scream, shout, spit and fight on the plane.
“In these cases, the captain throws us off scheduled flights, so we get around that problem by chartering planes. That kind of behaviour cuts no ice on a charter. There are no feepaying passengers,” Mr Wood added. “They can scream and they can shout.
“We can put velcro straps around their legs and they can be handcuffed and physically held until the plane is airborne.”
Mr Wood has been on two or three charters since taking up his post in May this year. “You get quite a lot of agitation and resistance going on, but as soon as the plane leaves the runway, calmness pervades the plane. They know the game is up.”