Every few months, a new report announces the breakdown of the British immigration system. In January, the Committee of Public Accounts issued a searing review of the Home Office’s migration policy. Three months earlier, the National Audit Office released a near-identical critique. Each publication invokes a now-familiar folk devil – the ‘foreign criminal’ – and demands better coordination between immigration enforcers and prison managers. Four times a year, we are told that governments that do not deport ‘foreign offenders’ are fundamentally unfit.
Calls for a more streamlined deportation of ‘foreign criminals’ are misguided on several counts. For one, they demonize a largely unexceptional group in the prison population. The Home Office’s own statistics show that rates of violent offences, sexual offences, and robberies are lower for foreign than British nationals. If they are released from prison, foreign nationals are subject to the same supervision arrangements as British citizens. There is little reason to think that ‘foreigners’ are especially dangerous.
The effort to deport foreign national prisoners also distorts British history. Non-citizens currently make up around 13% of the British penal estate and a full 40% of the black and minority ethnic prison population. These prisoners hail from 161 different countries – of the top five, three are former British colonies. Roughly half of the non-citizens in British prisons were born in countries with colonial ties to the British state. Many attended British colonial schools. Some are old enough to have had British passports as colonial subjects. The British government didn’t even count members of the Commonwealth as foreign nationals until 1993. It’s worth asking just how ‘foreign’ non-citizen prisoners really are.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with proposals to ‘manage’ foreign nationals, however, is that they obscure the change that’s already taken place inside British prisons.
In the past decade, the British government has reorganized its prison system around the concept of citizenship. The overhaul began in 2009, when the Prison Service started to concentrate non-citizens in specific prisons, in which the Home Office ‘embedded’ full-time immigration agents. Since then, the British government has created several standalone foreign national-only prisons,and has deputized prison staff to identify anyone ‘known or believed’ to be foreign to immigration authorities. Prisons now hold people beyond their criminal sentences—indefinitely and largely out of the public eye—as immigration detainees.
We know about these practices, because they have been leaked, challenged in court, and documented by academics and advocacy groups. I witnessed them firsthand when I spent a year visiting British prisons, interviewing prisoners and staff. Inside five prisons, I met black British prisoners who had been transferred to ‘all-foreign’ facilities because staff thought they ‘seemed foreign’. I spoke with prisoners who lived in limbo – people from Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Rwanda, and the Western Sahara, who couldn’t be deported because they lacked passports, or in some cases, because they were not legal citizens of any nation-state. I also interviewed prison staff members who cared for those in their charge and didn’t want to police migration. Prisons are complex and human spaces.
England and Wales aren’t the only countries where prisons have become sites of border control. In the past fifteen years, the United States has extended immigration enforcement into all its prisons and, like Britain, has established ‘all-foreign’ penal institutions. More than 25,000 people now live in American prisons segregated by citizenship status. On both sides of the Atlantic, penal institutions are increasingly devoted to identifying those who don’t belong.
The slow but sure transformation of the British and American penal systems ought to give us pause. As we read reports of failed institutions and faulty enforcement, we should reflect on why we have prisons, whether we need them, and what we want prisons to do. These questions are not new. John Howard first called for improvements in British jails in 1755. Elizabeth Fry documented life behind British bars – and demanded systemic change – in the early 1800s. Two centuries later, ethnographers, activists, and legal scholars keep their work alive. There is a long tradition of skepticism about the purpose of the British prison system. In an era of mass migration and deportation, we should look to that past.
Prisons are typically understood as places where societies incapacitate, deter, and maybe even reform people before their eventual return to the polity. Today’s prisons are doing a different kind of work. The real question isn’t whether the prison system could facilitate more deportation. It’s whether, for the growing numbers of incarcerated foreign nationals, contemporary prisons are built to punish at all.
Featured image credit: Strangeways Here We Come. Photo by Duncan Hull. CC BY 2.0 via dullhunk Flickr