By Ben du Preez from Detention Action, with testimony from Jamal who was detained in HMP The Verne.  Detention Action is a member of the Detention Forum.

On 24th March 2014, vans carrying migrants began arriving at HM Prison the Verne. Jamal was one of the first 30. He says he will never, ever, forget looking through the van windows up at the looming Napolenoic fortifications which dominate the hill atop of the Isle of Portland.

“It was a four hour drive from London. I didn’t know where we were going. No-one told us. I felt like we were driving to the end of the world. And then we reached the sea. And the van drove up the hill. And then we saw those big gates…’wow’, I said to myself. ‘This is not what I was expecting. This prison is scary.’”

Jamal, and those others with him, had been expecting a detention centre. That is what they had been told: “After being stuck in prison under immigration powers with no rights, I was excited about moving. I know its crazy to say, but I was actually looking forward to a detention centre.” What he got was an enormous fortress of a prison, which had been re-designated as a detention centre (with 580 bed spaces, set to be the third largest detention centre in Europe), only for it to be re-re-designated as a prison for migrants at the last moment. The reason given? To provide flexibility within an overcrowded prison estate. Instead of just feeling as though they are in prison, those held in the Verne actually are in a prison, run to the Prison Rules, without the additional (though limited) rights normally granted to detained migrants.

This means no mobile phones, no incoming telephone calls and no internet. Positioned out in the geographical extremities of the country, this basically assures almost zero contact with the outside world. As Jamal notes; “I was isolated from everyone and everything I knew. With no way of speaking to anyone outside, I really felt forgotten.” That also meant feeling forgotten by the justice system. 59% of the migrants Detention Action have met in our workshops in the Verne have been unrepresented, although the Legal Aid Agency has now belatedly agreed to fund on-site legal advice. Many do not even know what an immigration solicitor is.

Those in prison under immigration powers also miss out on key safeguards which should prevent the detention of people who are psychologically vulnerable. In detention centres, there is an (inadequately implemented) procedure for centre doctors to inform the Home Office about migrants whose health will be damaged by detention. In prisons, there is no such system: vulnerable people may fall apart without any report to the Home Office on their suitability for detention.

This forms part of a wider cloak of statistical invisibility, whereby those detained in prisons like the Verne are excluded from Home Office records. For many migrants in detention, the worst part of being locked up is the open-endedness: immigration detention in the UK is without time limit and where return is impossible, migrants may find themselves locked up for years. Last year, Home Office publications showed that at the end of 2013 seventy-five people had been detained for over a year. But these did not include those detained in prisons, despite those individuals frequently being held for the longest periods. Jamal, for example, had been held in prison under immigration powers for eighteen months following completion of half of a twenty-week sentence. According to ministerial statements, almost a thousand migrants were being held in prisons even before the Verne opened.

Today, the future status of the Verne remains uncertain. The Home Office plans to convert it to a detention centre in September 2014 but given their flip-flop earlier this year, everyone involved is holding their breath. Some things, however, are certain: hundreds of migrants continue to languish in prisons around the country, in a black hole ignored by official detention statistics, often out of the reach of lawyers. Equally indisputable is that these individuals are not prisoners, they are not serving criminal sentences at the order of a court and they have no ‘debt’ to society to pay. The truth is they are there for the administrative convenience of the Home Office.

But of all these truths, perhaps most harrowing of all is the fact that the routine imprisonment of migrants shows no signs of ending.