Hundreds of foreign inmates still awaiting deportation months after end of jail terms

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Nearly 1,000 foreign prisoners are caught in a bureaucratic limbo, locked up in jail even though they have reached the end of their sentences.

Members of the group, which includes one man in prison almost two years after he should have been freed, have been earmarked for deportation but are still awaiting removal.

The pressure on the prison system intensified yesterday as more than 160 foreign national prisoners were transferred to already overstretched jails after the riot at Harmondsworth immigration detention centre, near Heathrow airport, west London. Separate disturbances also broke out at the Lindholme detention centre, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Further evidence of the scale of the crisis facing the penal system emerged the day after Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, delivered a scathing verdict on the "shambles" in Britain's jails. Writing in The Independent, he lambasted the "increasingly dire situation" in the criminal justice system. His onslaught prompted demands yesterday for an emergency statement to be made on the situation by John Reid.

The Home Secretary has promised to remove as many foreign prisoners as possible, but progress has been slow in the six months since he was appointed. As many as 900 overseas nationals could now be in detention awaiting removal having finished their sentences, according to prison sources. Among them is an Iraqi man in Winchester prison, Hampshire, who was due to be released in January 2005 after serving an 18-month sentence. He is still behind bars.

William Higham, head of policy at the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It's ridiculous when the prison population has passed 80,000 that we have hundreds of foreign nationals held beyond their sentences when the dearest wish of many of them is to go home. It's time for the Home Office to sort out the lack of communication between the Prison Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate."

In the Commons, Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "One-third of the detainees at Harmondsworth were foreign national prisoners awaiting deportation. Another 150 illegal immigrants may now be released from other prisons to make room for detainees from Harmondsworth. There was another incident overnight at the Lindholme detention centre." She quoted Lord Ramsbotham's protest that "over the past decade we have a prison service left in a state of shambles". She concluded: "Mr Reid should make a statement so that MPs can call him to account."

The Home Secretary said yesterday that the Harmondsworth riot was a deliberate attempt to "sabotage" the country's immigration policy. He insisted that damage to the centre would not be allowed to frustrate how officials sought to enforce the law.

In a written statement to MPs, he disclosed that more than a third of the 484 detainees in the centre at the time were foreign national prisoners in the process of being deported or being considered for deportation. He confirmed that up to 150 low-risk immigration detainees from other centres will be freed on bail to make room for those being transferred from Harmondsworth.

He said that the response to the unrest was still "ongoing" after fires were lit and detainees gathered in a courtyard spelling out the words "SOS" and "Freedom" with what appeared to be sheets and clothing. "The disturbance appears to have been an attempt to sabotage the enforcement of our immigration law," Mr Reid said.

A fire broke out at another immigration detention centre in the early hours of yesterday. Firefighters spent two and a half hours tackling the blaze at Lindholme immigration centre. No accommodation facilities were lost at the centre, which is designed to hold up to 112 people. A South Yorkshire Police spokeswoman said: "We did have some officers attend the scene but they were on the perimeter."

The shadow immigration minister, Damian Green, criticised Mr Reid over the need to bail detainees following the incident at Harmondsworth. He said: "This is yet another example of John Reid's mismanagement of the immigration system and yet again it is the public who are paying the price of the consequences of this failure."