Immigration Postmen

Like many penal policies, hubs and spokes takes on a life of its own in the actual prison setting. Inside the prisons I visited, the new-found emphasis on border control was evident on a number of different levels. Perhaps most obviously, the policy recasts Prison Service staff as quasi-immigration officers. From day to day, prison line staff may be called upon to collect prisoners’ travel documents, to search their cells for passports, and to promote the government’s deportation schemes. Foreign national coordinators, the staff members assigned to manage ‘foreign’ prisoners, regularly contact embassies, mediate between prisoners and immigration officials, and serve foreign nationals with legal notices on behalf of the UKBA (HMPS 2008). In these ways and others, prison staff members sit in ‘structured subordination’ to the project of migration control (Hall 1978).

This endeavour is shaped not only by the UKBA’s mission, but also by its method. In one Prison Service Order published in response to the prisoner scandal, for instance, the UKBA provides detailed instructions on how prison staff should serve immigration documents to foreign national prisoners (HMPS 2008). ‘If you are asked to date a notice, please do so’, the order reads:

At worst a failure to date the notice can lead to serious problems at the appeal; at best, it gives the appellant’s legal representatives an easy way of casting doubt on Home Office competence. (HMPS 2008: 31)

This directive frames the Prison Service, a division of the Ministry of Justice, as ambassador and defender of the Home Office’s legitimacy. As that section of the Order bluntly concludes, ‘You are, essentially, the postman’ (HMPS 2008).

In enlisting Prison Service staff as UKBA ‘postmen’, the new foreign national prisoner policies extend the practical reach of migration control deep into the penal estate. These policies also situate the prison as a symbolic site for migration control. Under hubs and spokes, ‘foreigners’ are identified, concentrated, and incarcerated in prisons until the UKBA approves their release (MoJ and UKBA 2009). Since the scandal, moreover, the UKBA has spent an increasing proportion of its time and budget on the management of the ‘criminal’ population (MoJ and UKBA 2009; Vine 2012). Within this frame, release from prison becomes a certification of legal residency and finding ‘foreign criminals’ becomes a guiding—and self-fulfilling— goal for the UKBA. The hubs and spokes policy thus figures the prison as an immigration net, an integral site at and through which migration is policed.

The counterpoint to this rhetorical process is that prisons are actual physical sites for incarcerating foreign prisoners. British prisons currently hold between 11,000 and 13,000 foreign nationals, many of whom face deportation (MoJ 2012).[1] In housing these prisoners, particularly those who have completed their criminal sentences, prisons extend the immigration detention estate. Prisons also provide a controlled space for interaction between foreign nationals and immigration authorities. In accordance with new penal policies, prisons now host regular meetings between UKBA officials and prisoners who have been identified as ‘foreigners’ (HMPS 2006, 2008). Such meetings, which inside the prison are called ‘immigration surgeries’, give border agents an opportunity to fingerprint and photograph prisoners and to use what one official called ‘assertive interviewing practices’ and ‘police techniques’ to determine prisoners’ nationalities. At least in some cases, border agents also employ the threat of imprisonment to achieve their aims. In one surgery I attended, a UKBA representative told a ‘non-compliant’ prisoner—that is, a man who would not agree to his own deportation—that unless he acquiesced to deportation proceedings, immigration could ‘hold him in prison as long as we want’. In situations like these, the prospect of imprisonment becomes a practical tool for immigration staff.

Yet, while hubs and spokes figures the prison as a means of border control, the policy is also less popular and more piecemeal than it can seem from outside prison walls. Behind bars, it is clear that the new approach to ‘foreigners’ has its detractors and that the overlap between immigration and imprisonment is incomplete. While the policy establishes specific hubs and spoke prisons, many prisons diverge from this script. Some spoke prisons employ full-time immigration staff, others incarcerate a significant number of foreign nationals, and the role that immigration personnel play within the prison differs in each institution. In a few prisons, the staff assigned to manage foreign nationals had never heard of hubs and spokes.

The meaning of the new policy thus took on a local character when realized within the penal institution. So, too, did the interactions between prison and immigration staff. This bureaucratic relationship was one of the targets of the hubs and spokes agreement, which makes plain that the foreign prisoner scandal was caused, at least in part, by poor communication between state agencies (HMPS 2006, 2008). In most of the prisons I visited, UKBA and prison staff communicated according to the dictates of that agreement and were both cooperative and cordial with each other when doing so. In individual interviews, however, the conflicts between these groups emerged. Both prison and UKBA staff worried that their missions were too different for the new system to work. In several cases, prison staff members complained that they had little knowledge and less control over prisoners’ immigration cases, a situation that they found especially frustrating when handling ‘difficult’ time-served prisoners.[2] Prison staff also worried about how the UKBA’s priorities affected the nebulous balance of power within the prison.

One foreign national coordinator recounted the problems created when border agents introduce immigration casework into the prison system and then leave prison staff to maintain order. ‘If you’re coming with bad news, I’m giving it to [the prisoners]’, she said. ‘You’re not coming into my prison and giving my prisoners bad news.’ Articulating a blend of protectiveness, defensiveness, and ownership over the prison and its prisoners, this staff member suggested that hubs and spokes disrupts the daily organization and hierarchies of prison life. More senior Prison Service officials reiterated this argument on a grander scale, noting that the new policy transposes the demands of migration control onto a penal estate already arranged by security classification and pinched by overcrowding. As one Prison Service policy maker put it, hubs and spokes necessitates prisoner transfers and particular prison assignments when ‘we are already bursting at the seams’.

These criticisms illuminate the tensions underlying the new penal policy. They also clarify the Prison Service’s own perception of its purpose. Prison officials’ complaints about hubs and spokes reflect an interest in maintaining their authority, both within the prison and within the broader government bureaucracy. Inside the prison, this goal takes the form of localized debates about the limits of immigration staff power. Such debates typically centre on the balance between immigration ‘removal’ targets and ‘the need to maintain order’, a concept that holds great sway in prison staff members’ articulations of the drawbacks of hubs and spokes. Throughout my interviews, prison officials asserted the primacy of the need for order, and with it, the import of existing classification systems. These claims suggest that the Prison Service understands itself through the lens of order and, at least in some cases, sees that paradigm as incompatible with the notion of ‘removal’.

Prison staff also expressed concerns about the treatment of prisoners under hubs and spokes. One staff member, for instance, predicted that the policy would ultimately fail because the two organizations had distinct approaches to prisoners. As that official put it, ‘the difference between the Prison Service and the UKBA is that we see them as people and they see them as numbers’. This is a biased perspective, of course, but it nonetheless illustrates the philosophical conflicts at play in the implementation of penal policy. According to one official familiar with the relationship between the UKBA and the Prison Service, these conflicts were part of the reason that the hubs and spokes agreement took three years to negotiate. That official said that the policy was created ‘for UKBA convenience’ and that during the negotiations the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the umbrella organization that includes prisons and probation, voiced fears about its capacity to uphold a ‘decency agency’ while indefinitely detaining deportees.[3] The UKBA, on the other hand, was singularly focused on the effort to ‘detain and deport’.

The two agencies tapped to manage the foreign prisoner ‘crisis’ thus had distinct and sometimes conflicting goals in creating hubs and spokes. This distinction was acknowledged in the government report commissioned in response to the scandal (MoJ and UKBA 2009). That report found that ‘NOMS and UKBA are ultimately working toward different objectives in managing F[oreign] N[ational] P[risoners]’. NOMS, according to its mission statement, exists both ‘to protect the public’ and ‘to reduce re-offending rates’ (MoJ 2010b). While the Prison Service is not explicit about how it intends to reach these goals, its official emphasis on ‘reducing reoffending’ by helping prisoners lead ‘good and useful lives during and after release’ suggests a conceptual investment in the connection between offenders and the British polity.[4] The UKBA, in contrast, is by definition interested in ‘controlling the border’ by increasing the annual number of deportations.

The clash between the two agencies’ aims plays out on the ground in the subtle but constant tension between immigration and prison staff. That tension is then more than bureaucratic boundary drawing; it is a window into the problems that arise when governments attempt to merge immigration with imprisonment. On paper, policies like hubs and spokes appear to blend border control with punishment practices, and in doing so, to police both migration and crime. But behind closed doors and prison walls, these policies prompt debates about transfers and prisoner treatment—debates that are, at their base, about the purpose of the prison and the legitimacy of the UKBA’s presence behind bars. Accordingly, one official advised me to ‘hesitate when talking about any “integration” of the UKBA and the

Prison Service’. Instead, criminologists ought to rethink the relationship between immigration and imprisonment.

  • [1] The number of foreign national prisoners varies depending on the size of the remand and ‘time-served’ populations and the number actually ‘removed’ from the UK is even more difficult to track.Official statistics place the foreign national population at 11,077 (MoJ 2012a). That statistic includesneither the 760 ex-prisoners currently held in prison nor the more than 1,500 prisoners listed as‘nationality not recorded’, many of whom are likely foreign nationals (Bhui 2007; Vine 2012).
  • [2] Ex-prisoners held under immigration powers tend to be more vocally angry, resistant, andfrustrated than prisoners who know their date of release. For a psychological account of the pressuresof indefinite detention as they relate to tendencies toward self-harm, see Borrill and Taylor (2009).
  • [3] The ‘Decency Agenda’ was introduced by Prison Service Director General Martin Narey in1999. While there is no consensus on what this agenda entails, Alison Liebling argues that it is anexplicit move away from notions of ‘justice’ and ‘liberality’ and toward concepts like ‘fairness,minimum standards, security, order, the challenging of offender behaviour, and a reduction in theavailability and use of drugs’ (2004: 478). Prison officials and staff regularly cite this agenda, despite itsconceptual ambiguity, when they are asked to explain the purpose of the prison.
  • [4] To be clear, my suggestion is not that the Prison Service is actually or sufficiently concerned withthe prison’s broader place in society, or even with offender resettlement. The point here is a limitedone: given its stated objective, the Prison Service is conceptually connected to prisoners’ continuedpresence on British soil in a way that the UKBA is not.
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