Across Europe, 21.7% of the prison population resides in cells not located in their country of origin. This ranges greatly from country to country. Luxembourg, perhaps understandably given it is a very small country in the middle of Europe, has a prison populace that is mostly foreign – 72.7% of all those incarcerated in Luxembourg are from elsewhere. Meanwhile, Poland has less than 1%. The UK has a 10.9% foreign born prison population. It also has two bespoke prisons for only foreign nationals, HMP Huntercombe in Oxfordshire and HMP Maidstone in Kent. As the UK leaves the European Union, the issues faced by foreign national prisoners and indeed the very real concerns that the imprisonment of such individuals poses to the state are unlikely to diminish. In fact, Brexit could make things worse in several ways if careful steps are not taken.
There are three major problems experienced by prisoners in foreign cells: one, is language difficulties, the most obvious of the three. The prison staff cannot understand the staff and vice versa, leading to numerous difficulties. Two, problems maintaining contact with family members due to distance/cost of keeping in touch. Three, the issue of deportation that looms over them.
The first problem, that of language barriers, should technically be the least problematic to solve. Education is a right of foreign national prisoners throughout the EU and this very much includes the right to learn the language of the country of incarceration. Yet this offer isn’t taken up enough. In a study done by FORINER, an organisation that seeks to provide education to foreign national prisoners across the European Union, the results were intuitive: the most frequently desired education from foreign national prisoners is language training and the main reasons they had for not being able to access it were lack of materials and resource being available to fill the demand as well as a lack of knowledge within the relevant prison systems to carry it through to an acceptable level.
The solutions found in the study are again intuitive: better connections between the prison systems in the relevant countries is a good start. A grasp of what current technology can do to alleviate the problems as they exist is another big step that could be made.
There were many things the FORINER report made me think about prison reform throughout the UK in the positive. First was the mentoring scheme being run chiefly out of Dartmoor, but at several other UK prisons as well. How it works is that more highly educated or professionally qualified prisoners are identified amongst the existing incarcerated populace; they are screened appropriately and then matched up for one to one mentoring with another prisoner. On occasion, the mentors are asked to teach groups when and where appropriate. Given both the mentors and the mentees gain greatly from the process in a best case scenario – those doing the teaching gain the experience and confidence that comes with it of passing along knowledge while those being taught learn invaluable skills – and it requires no resource outside of what is already there inside the prison already, it is great to see this gaining ground in the UK and indeed throughout the EU.
Another great idea is the Virtual Campus, which is being rolled out to prisons by MegaNexus. This provides prisoners with online training. It would be difficult to underline just how important to the rehabilitation agenda programmes like these really are as prisoners can gain qualifications and skills that will allow them to re-enter the workforce upon release and as such, hopefully stay out of prison for the rest of their lives. Virtual Campus is available in 105 prisons throughout England and Wales (out of 131, so a pickup rate of 80%) and as of October 2016 30,000 prisoners are using the system. For a programme that only went live in June of 2008 it has been a remarkable success (although wider success in regards to rehabilitation is hard to quantify, generally). The plan is to roll Virtual Campus out to the remaining 26 prisons in England and Wales – the halt is simply getting the necessary technology in place in the relevant institutions.
Bringing this back to foreign national prisoners: both mentoring and online educational programmes are more relevant to them than to any other group of prisoners, their need for guidance and education being all the greater due to them being in a different country, one in which even basic communication can be difficult. So while both the mentoring programme and Virtual Campus are vital for all prisoners in the UK, they are absolutely necessary for foreign national prisoners most of all.
There are all sorts of ways of making sure all prisoners are rehabilitated effectively and that foreign national prisoners are treated with the attention they require. As you’ve just read, there are policy solutions at work as we speak.