No way out for foreign national women behind bars

Too many vulnerable foreign national women are locked up for non-violent crimes and have often been trafficked or coerced into offending, according to a briefing by the Prison Reform Trust and the charity FPWP Hibiscus.

Women from foreign countries are one of the fastest growing groups in the female prison population and represent one in seven of all the women held in custody in England and Wales. Drawing on the experience and work of Hibiscus with foreign national women in prison and kindly supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the briefing reveals that coercion, intimidation, misinformation and threats are frequent factors behind the offending of this group.

Foreign national women are far less likely than UK nationals to have committed serious violent or sexual offences or robbery. Only 15% of foreign nationals are serving sentences for serious crimes compared to 41% of UK nationals. A disproportionate number of foreign national women are in prison for drug or immigration related offences. The briefing’s findings reveal that the average length of sentence given in 2009 for drug offences was six years, with findings of guilt after entering not guilty pleas resulting in sentences of up to 15 years. The average sentence for false documentation was eight months and for deception 12 months.

Olga Heaven, director FPWP Hibiscus

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By failing to recognise the path of these women into crime and address their specific needs and vulnerabilities, the UK authorities are wasting taxpayers’ money on needless imprisonment and could be in breach of international legal obligations to protect the victims of human trafficking.

One African woman who had her son kidnapped and needed money to pay legal fees to gain custody and provide for him, was caught on arrival in the UK carrying 5 kilograms of cocaine in her suitcase. She was arrested and tried and given a six and a half year custodial sentence.

She told Hibiscus: “I was scared, at that point, I have a baby… At that time we have no money, nowhere to live… I was with my son. I have to do this, it was a pressure. Big pressure on me. That person come to me and say [sic] “look I got a lot of money”, ridiculous amount…”

The briefing reveals a dramatic rise in the number of women entering the justice system from Eastern Europe, representing 20% of all new cases. There was also a growth in the number of women from China and Vietnam, representing 12% of new cases. Research published by the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2010 found that nearly two thirds of women involved in off-street prostitution were migrants and half came from Eastern Europe and a third from Asia. Asian women, primarily from China, were also more likely to be victims of trafficking.

The UK is a signatory to the UN Protocol for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking and the European Convention on Trafficking. Damian Green, Immigration Minister at the Home Office, has stated that combating trafficking and looking after its victims is a priority for the government, and that “having any number of people trafficked into the UK is unacceptable”.

Despite these commitments the briefing reveals that insufficient effort is made by the UK authorities to identify evidence of exploitation or persecution of foreign national women in contact with the justice system. Many of these women have no option but to plead guilty and are sentenced, with the assumption of deportation, before they can be assessed as potential victims.

The briefing calls for the development of a national strategy for the management of foreign national women in the justice system that addresses their particular needs and vulnerabilities. It says the sentencing guidelines on drug offences, due to be published in the New Year, should take account of the role foreign national women play in this offence and introduce scope for mitigation and a greater emphasis on proportionality in sentencing. The briefing recommends that those currently serving lengthy prison terms for drug importation should have their cases reviewed. It calls on the British government to ensure compliance with CEDAW, the Bangkok Rules and the UN Protocol on the Protection of Victims of Trafficking.

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:
Far too many foreign national women are languishing in British jails having been coerced or trafficked into offending. There are ways out of this mess but only if the government is prepared to redouble its efforts to catch the traffickers, who profit from their grubby trade, rather than allowing the burden of punishment to fall on vulnerable women many of whom have been victims as well as perpetrators of crime.

Olga Heaven, Director of Hibiscus, said:

There is increasing diversity of nationality in the female prison population. High numbers of women are brought into the UK deceived and exploited. Many are young women with a dream of going to a first world country to achieve something but what they are brought in for is either prostitution or some other kind of enforced labour. Others who have been provided with false documents are detained by immigration or custom officials and often find themselves imprisoned on arrival. Many women who are here legally face multiple social and economic disadvantage which places them at high risk of offending. More needs to be done to identify vulnerable foreign national women in need of protection before they get into trouble with the law.


You can listen to Olga and Juliet talking on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour by clicking this link


You can download the briefing by clicking this link