How non-UK offenders are often denied truth, fairness and justice.
Can we please stop the one-sided hue and cry about the non-deportation of some foreign national offenders? Their release from jail may have been chaotic and unsupervised. But that is not the whole story.
I have been dealing with prisoner cases ever since my selection as Labour candidate for Bermondsey in 1981. A fair number of the prisoners who have sought my help have been foreign nationals, mostly Black and Asian. From my firsthand experience over the last 25 years I can make the following observations:
- A majority of non-UK citizens who face criminal charges depend on legal aid for their defence in court. The quality of legal aid solicitors is patchy, to say the least.
- Because of poor quality legal aid representation, a lack of understanding of the workings of the criminal justice system, and an often poor command of English, a significant proportion of miscarriages of justice involve non- UK citizens.
- Of those wrongly convicted, few non-white foreign nationals have knowledge of the appeals process, or the English language capacity, to successfully challenge their conviction and to get support for their appeal from their MP, MEP and local community leaders.
- Once in prison, foreign nationals with English language difficulties rarely get much help improving their linguistic skills. The slashing of the prison education budget means that some prisoners with the reading, writing and oral English standard of a five year old are told their English is “adequate” and are denied English language classes.
- Poor command of English means they often fail their sentence plans and, in particular, are unable to satisfactorily complete offending behaviour programmes. They are deemed “not rehabilitated” and therefore not suitable for progression to D category and to more open prison conditions.
- In other words, it is likely that a significant percentage of non-white foreign nationals are quadruple punished: they are wrongfully convicted, denied English lessons, failed on prison programmes and blocked from transfer to more relaxed prison regimes. I am currently helping Asian and African prisoners who are victims of this quadruple abuse.
- Racism is still a serious problem in prisons, with non-white prisoners from overseas disproportionately at risk of unfavourable treatment. A small but disturbing number of prison officers are racist. Some openly make disparaging racist remarks when they think a non-English speaking prisoner cannot understand what they are saying. Recently, I have encountered prison officers referring to Muslim prisoners as “Osama” (as in bin Laden). Neither I nor the prisoners dare complain because we fear they will be subjected to retribution (the mechanisms for the redress of abuses in prison are weak and most genuine complaints get nowhere).
- Overall, the treatment of non-UK citizens (mostly Black and Asian) in British jails falls well short of any acceptable standard of justice.
- Foreign nationals who commit crimes deserve to be tried fairly, convicted fairly, punished fairly, rehabilitated fairly and, if appropriate, released fairly back into the community.
- Despite the current anxiety about the apparently reckless release of non-UK offenders who have committed serious crimes, we also need to remember that the way the court and prison systems treat non-white foreign national prisoners often falls short of truth, fairness and justice.