Hundreds of immigration detainees who are being held in jails after completing their prison sentences are unable to access legal advice during the pandemic, lawyers and charities have warned.
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.
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 usually transferred to an immigration removal centre, where conditions are less restrictive and they have better access to legal advice. However, since the start 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 subsequently increased significantly in the past year, rising by 43 per cent to 434 in the 12 months to 30 September 2020.
Conditions in prisons have meanwhile become significantly more restrictive, with most adult inmates now locked in their cells for 23 hours a day – in some cases, 24 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.”
It also points out that the coronavirus is spreading more rapidly than ever through prisons, with data published last month showing that 1,529 people have now contracted the virus across 89 sites in the prison estate.
More people in prisons tested positive for Covid-19 in October 2020 than in the entire period from March to September, according to the Ministry of Justice.
One 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 The Independent 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, who didn’t want to be named, said: “I tried to get help, but I felt like the staff were ignoring me. They were saying they were going to come and see me, but they didn’t.
“They just treat you like another prisoner. I was in there for longer than I should have been because I couldn’t get legal advice. It was the worst thing, especially when you know you’ve already served your sentence.
“It was 24-hour bang-up. I was only allowed to come out for a shower every two days. I was going crazy.”
Celia Clarke, director at Bail for Immigration Detainees, 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 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. Of course they should also be released.”
A government spokesperson said: “Individuals held in prison for the purposes of immigration detention are usually there because they have been assessed 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.”
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