Columns

The thorny issue of foreign prisoners

Diane Abbott

Sunday, September 09, 2012    

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WHEN the Conservative UK leader David Cameron became prime minister he made a point of threatening to send many more foreign prisoners home. This was a very popular idea with the British public.

Foreign prisoners in British jails are a particular issue for Jamaica. This is because there are more Jamaicans serving sentences in British jails than any other nationality. However, foreign prisoners in general are a particular problem for the British, because it costs around £38,000 to incarcerate someone in a British jail.

Consequently, Jamaican prisoners alone cost the British taxpayer over a quarter of a million pounds a year. In a period of financial austerity, with cuts being made in so many basic services, the British taxpayer is very unwilling to bear this burden.

And there is growing British outrage about this issue. The Daily Telegraph newspaper quoted Conservative MP Priti Patel as saying, "Too many foreign nationals are enjoying themselves at the taxpayers' expense. Criminals flouting laws in Britain should be deported immediately."

But the reality is that, since Prime Minister Cameron made his bold threat, hardly any foreign prisoners have actually been sent home. Figures last year revealed that just 47 were removed in 2010 under an arrangement to transfer prisoners.

The difficulty is that, although there is a Prisoner Transfer Agreement between Britain and Jamaica, apparently you can only transfer a prisoner with his/ her agreement. Naturally enough, most foreign prisoners will not agree to transfer to prisons in their home country where conditions will almost certainly be much worse than prisons in Britain.

Apparently the Jamaican Government has agreed to enact legislation that would make it possible to transfer prisoners without their consent. But no such legislation has been passed. This is understandable. Deportees are unpopular enough in Jamaica without the Government passing legislation to make it easier to send Jamaican prisoners home.

So, in apparent desperation, the British Government has set up a £3-million-a-year prisoner repatriation fund. Some of the money is supposed to be spent on financial incentives to help prisoners to resettle in their home country. But some of the money is apparently being given directly to governments to improve prison conditions.

In Nigeria, for instance, British government money is being spent on projects that provide human rights training for prison officers in three states and another project that pays for guards' facilities at a women's jail in Lagos.

In Jamaica, the funds are apparently being used to modernise the prison services and improve rehabilitation programmes. But there is no guarantee that the money will be spent as intended. So there is some speculation that the money for "projects" is little more than a bribe to governments like Jamaica to take back their nationals.

And there is a further obstacle to removing foreign prisoners from British jails. It is possible that the prisoners could sue the British Government under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act. They would sue on the basis that conditions in jails in countries like Jamaica are so bad that they would constitute "inhuman and degrading treatment" under Human Rights legislation.

This is an issue on which Jamaican and British public opinion is diametrically opposed. Jamaicans are upset by the numbers of deportees, but the British are increasingly unhappy about the millions of pounds being spent to house foreign prisoners in British jails.

Worldwide austerity makes these tensions worse. The foreign prisoners issue is not going to go away. But it is difficult to see how it is going to be resolved in a way that meets the demands of both Jamaican and British public opinion.

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