New practices to support Foreign National Prisoners

Published: 6 Apr 2016

Author: Lucy Slade
New practices to support Foreign National Prisoners

Migration across borders is changing our prison populations. Lucy Slade has previously worked as a resettlement mentor manager in London prisons, where a large proportion of inmates come from outside the UK. She also has experience of working in prisons as a volunteer.

At Lucy's local prison, HMP Wandsworth, around half of the prison’s 1600 men are foreign, representing over 70 different countries. Because of language and cultural differences, these men are often isolated and less likely to be able to access rehabilitation activities.

Keen to discover whether other countries could offer an alternative approach, Lucy was awarded a five-week Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in 2015, in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust. She travelled to the Netherlands, Spain, Norway and Sweden, visiting countries that have a high or growing proportion of foreign prisoners in their jails.

Lucy said that what she saw was frequently discouraging:

Crowding is common, the process of deportation is slow and prisoners receive very little support in planning their return to their home country. The most basic resources are unavailable in their own languages and they are excluded from almost everything that will help them lead a life that is crime-free.

She cites the example of an Iraqi detainee in Norway who, misunderstanding the nature of his detention and unable to speak Norwegian or English, spent three terrifying days believing he was sentenced to undergo torture.

However Lucy also witnessed examples of promising practice, usually through the efforts of a few outstanding individuals. In her Fellowship report she mentions the chaplains of the ‘Safe Way Home’ resettlement programme in Norway, and the inspirational leadership of Mohamed Gulied, the Somali-born prison Director of Mariefred Prison in Sweden.

Now a Swedish citizen, Mohamed was detained by immigration authorities as a young man. “I’ve gone through it myself,” he says, “Coming to the country when I was on my own. It gives me a sense of knowing what these people are going through.” In the prison, 26 languages are spoken in total (five by Mohamed himself); prisoners eat meals at a shared table rather than alone in their cells; and all take part in welding workshops, giving them a skill which enables them to access employment in the outside world.

There were other practices that have the potential to work in UK prisons: Skype and video conferencing to help detainees stay in contact with their families; a new pointing dictionary providing a practical and inexpensive way of getting over language barriers, and new research from the Netherlands reinforcing the importance of visits from prisoners’ consuls and the support of volunteers.

Lucy has shared her findings with staff and volunteers at HMP Wandsworth and gave a presentation about her Fellowship to an audience in London. The insights and recommendations in her report will be of interest to those working with foreign prisoners in prisons and in resettlement. She hopes the Fellowship will also be a catalyst for greater cooperation between countries.

Foreign prisoners are treated as a toxic by-product of our open borders. No country wants to take responsibility for them, not even the prisoner’s own country. This needs to change.”

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