Delays and confusion keeping immigration detainees behind bars unnecessarily

Read the report: The experience of immigration detainees in prisons

A review of the experience of immigration detainees held in prisons has found that they were markedly disadvantaged compared with those held in immigration removal centres (IRCs), with many in custody for long periods with little or no progress in their cases being made by the Home Office.

One detainee told us that she had agreed to return home and had offered to fund her own flight costs, but over six weeks later she had not received any clear updates about when it would be possible for her to travel. In other cases, the Home Office’s own independent case progression panel had recommended detainees be released. Yet they remained behind bars in prisons already under enormous strain.

Charlie Taylor, Chief Inspector of Prisons, said:

“Aside from the pressure this adds to an already stretched prison service, the pressure it puts on often vulnerable detainees themselves is enormous.”

Our inspectors found that detainees struggled to access legal advice. Very few had been told that they were entitled to half an hour of free legal advice, and many of the prison and Home Office staff that inspectors spoke to were not themselves aware of this entitlement. IRCs, by contrast, generally facilitate much better access to legal advice for detainees held there, putting them at a notable advantage over those held in prison.

Adding to this confusion, immigration papers were usually served in English with no formal interpretation services used when updating prisoners on their cases. Detainees therefore resorted to asking other prisoners to translate for them, leading to confusion and distress. Many described a feeling of hopelessness and despair at their situation.

Perhaps most worryingly, vulnerable detainees, including victims of torture, were not routinely identified, nor their release considered in the same way it would be in IRCs.

Mr Taylor said:

“Some of these people are extremely vulnerable. If these vulnerabilities are not monitored and addressed effectively, there is an increased risk that they will come to harm while in custody and that the integrity of the decision-making in their immigration cases will be undermined.

“Furthermore, the prolonged detention of people under immigration powers, especially when it is because of inefficiencies in Home Office case-working procedures, is inexcusable given that so many prisons are already overcrowded.”


Notes to editors

  1. Read the thematic report, published on 13 October 2022.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. While HMI Prisons only inspects prisons in England and Wales, our immigration mandate covers the whole of the UK, and the data cited in this report refers to all four UK countries.
  4. Immigration detainees are distinct from prisoners in that they held for administrative, rather than judicial reasons – they are not serving criminal sentences but are held in prison while the Home Office attempts to remove them from the UK. The detainees held in prisons in the UK are former offenders who have completed their criminal sentence, and whom the Home Office has decided to hold in prison rather than an immigration removal centre (IRC).
  5. While there is currently no legal limit on the amount of time someone can be held in immigration detention, Home Office guidance states that detention must be used for the shortest period necessary. Judicial guidance from the First Tier Tribunal for Immigration and Asylum on periods of detention considers three months to be a substantial length of time, and six months to be a long period – after which imperative conditions of public safety may be necessary to justify detention.
  6. Most immigration detainees are usually held in IRCs, which specialise in managing this population. Detainees held in IRCs are given mobile phones and permitted access to the internet, which is not the case in prisons. Additional safeguarding measures are also in place relative to the prison estate, and legal advice is more readily available and facilitated by the IRC.
  7. Please email if you would like more information.