Migration across borders is changing our prison populations. Lucy Slade has previously worked as a resettlement mentor manager and has volunteered in London prisons where a large proportion of inmates come from outside the UK. At Lucy’s local prison, HMP Wandsworth, around half of the prison’s 1,600 men are foreign, representing over 70 different countries. Because of language and cultural differences, these men are often isolated and less likely to be able to access rehabilitation activities. Keen to discover whether other countries could offer an alternative approach, Lucy was awarded a five-week Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship in 2015, in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust. She travelled to the Netherlands, Spain, Norway and Sweden, visiting countries that have a high or growing proportion of foreign prisoners in their prisons.
Over a third of prisoners are in Norwegian prisons are foreign. The majority, around 70%, do not have a valid social security number and it is assumed that they have little or no social connection to Norway. Norway’s economic downturn is also said to have contributed to the growing numbers. Non-Norwegians, previously employed in building projects, are now out of work and have resorted to burglary or theft to make ends meet. A large number foreigners in Norway are remanded or sentenced for crimes related to trafficking of drugs.
Norwegian prisons are crowded, operating at 97% of their capacity, and the process of deportation is slow. For foreign prisoners the most basic resources are unavailable in their own languages and they are excluded from almost anything that will help them lead a life that is crime-free. But in this bleak landscape there were examples of good practice which stand out, usually because of the work of outstanding individuals like Yury Zelentsov and the chaplains of ‘Safe Way Home’, a resettlement programme for prisoners facing deportation. It is unique to Norway, part funded by the Norwegian government and supported by the Salvation Army’s network in 127 countries.
Yury was first drawn to foreign prisoners because he saw their isolation in Norwegian prisons. His language skills were much needed by the Eastern European population – he speaks Russian, English, Finnish and Norwegian. He tries to start his conversations with prisoners early in their sentence. The emphasis is on the prisoner’s willingness to change and take responsibility for themselves.
‘We’re not going to romanticise anyone’s story. Sometimes prisoners say ‘What can you do for me?’ This is not what we want. There are people who are committed to a life of crime. Unless they realise they need to change there’s nothing we can do. The work starts when they use their time in prison as an opportunity to reflect on what brought them there.’
Chaplains provide a mixture of spiritual and practical support. For foreign prisoners this includes encouragement to contact their consul. ‘It’s very important for prisoners to see their consul. It was tough at first because the consuls didn’t want to start coming into prison but now it has become an important part of the work they do. Now the Estonian and British consul know every one of their prisoners by name.’
Prisoners already engaged with Salvation Army’s chaplaincy work and who want help through ‘Safe Way Home’ are encouraged to make detailed plans for their release. ‘It is the start of their reintegration. We encourage them to write plans because there are so many temptations. Old friends may call and lead them to fall back into old ways. Having a plan provides you with blinkers and a script. We discuss which airport, who will pick them up, who has the keys, is there food in the fridge, if there isn’t where are you going to buy it and what with?’
The success of Safe Way Home hinges on an agreement with the Norwegian immigration police. Information about the departure date and flight times are shared with Yury though not with prisoners. He is then in able to ensure that paper work is in order thus avoiding further detention in an immigration centre. During this time the prisoner may feel very uncertain but will be told that everything is taken care of. Prison chaplains continue to visit once a week until departure. Yury is always at the airport in order to say good bye and, when appropriate, following the man or woman onto the plane and giving them food for the journey. Timing is important too. If the plane is delayed by a few hours the person may arrive in the middle of the night with no one to meet them.
People arriving at the airport in their home country are met by a Salvation Army officer in uniform. This is particularly important for men returning to Nigeria, for example. There is anecdotal evidence that corrupt customs officials ‘confiscate’ money from returning prisoners, leaving them stranded at the airport. ‘If the man can tell the customs official that he is being met at the airport by a Salvation Army officer and can point to someone in a uniform it makes a huge difference.’
Thereafter the prisoner is accompanied home ‘It’s not just putting them on the bus – we physically take them home and try and stay in touch for three months. In the last four years 52 men have been helped to resettle in around 21 countries.’
Safe Way Home chaplains are trained in how to identify victims of human trafficking. ‘Sometimes it takes a lot of listening to discover that someone has been trafficked. There was one guy who had been stealing gas from trucks all over Europe. He had many other issues including alcohol addiction but it was clear that other people were in charge – on release he would never be a free man. He gave us information about the people who were planning to collect him from the airport and arrests were made.’
Download Lucy’s report here.
Photo: Yury Zelentsov and Lucy Slade.