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Michael's story: ‘Caged like an animal’

by
12 June 2015

Michael's experience of both prison and detention suggests that criminals in the UK can be treated with more dignity than migrants and asylum-seekers in detention, writes Christine Miles

ISTOCK

I WAS born in Ghana, but I left when I was four years old. I lived with my father in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast before I came to this country, aged 12.

When I was 15, my father abandoned us, and my stepmum just took off: I came home one day, and she was nowhere to be found. I was the oldest of five siblings; so I dropped out of school, and for a year I worked at Dalston market and looked after them.

But, then, my little sister had some problems in school. The school asked to see a parent, and they found out that we didn't have any. And, at that point, social services got involved. They took my siblings into care; but, as I was over the age of 16, they didn't want to take me. They told me to go to the council for accommodation, but as I had been abandoned in this country I had no paperwork; so nobody could give me any help.

I ended up involved in petty crime - around the age of 18 or 19 it was mostly shoplifting, but then I got involved with gang activity. It took a lot to get out of that environment, and I used somebody else's identification to be able to work. I worked for eight years, paying tax and everything. I knew I was committing a crime, but for me it was better than carrying a knife and robbing somebody.

For that, I was given a 20-month sentence - ten months in prison, and ten months outside, on probation, for rehabilitation. But I actually did the whole 20 months in prison. And because I was classed as a foreign-national prisoner, I stayed in a high-risk Category A prison for the whole of my sentence.

 

AFTER my sentence, immigration held me in detention, in the same prison, for a whole year. Then I was moved to two detention centres.

I was sentenced on the same day as a guy who committed GBH - a serious offence - and he was sent to a Category B prison, then on to a Category D. He committed the same crime again, came back to prison, saw me, and said: "I could commit a murder and I'd do less sentence than you," and, in a way, he was right, because I didn't know how long I was going to be there.

As a prisoner, you get treated much better in other ways, too. In prison, when you approach an officer, that officer doesn't know whether you have a British passport or not, and they're more likely to treat you as they do any other prisoner. When you're in detention, the attitude is like: "Why are you giving me hassle, why don't you fuck off back to your country?"

As a prisoner, when I wanted an appointment to go to health care, there may be a delay, but they take you seriously and give you an appointment. When you go to health care in a detention centre, their attitude is always: "I can't do anything, because all you want me to do is to write that your circumstances are difficult, so that you can be released." There's a culture of disbelief, even when you need desperate help.

When you go to prison, you're given an inside probation officer, who gives you targets. They say: "What can we do to help you so that when you're released you don't reoffend?" In a detention centre, you're just left to rot; nobody is willing to engage with you: the staff are like security guards or police - they are not there to help you: they are there to stop you.

 

IN DETENTION, you have no access to the people who are dealing with your case. If you want to ask a question, you put in an application form, and it goes from A, B, C to D, and about a month later somebody replies to you. But that person won't have written their name on the form or signed it; so you don't know who you're corresponding with if it doesn't make any sense.

And you can do all kinds of courses as a criminal, but nothing in detention. The message you receive is that: "It's better if you commit a crime: we will look after you; but if you've got an immigration problem, then the middle finger to you."

If you have a British passport and you're a sex offender or a murderer, you get better treatment than if you stole because you were hungry and you don't have a British passport; that's how it is.

In prison, you have this feeling that, OK, I'm going to get out on this day; so you're working, you're preparing towards something. In detention, the reason why a lot of people tend to go bonkers is because you wake up day to day, and what are they doing? Even though I was in a Category A prison, the number of suicides was less than in detention. I'm not an expert on psychology, but that suggests that something is wrong.

 

THIS country also criminalises asylum-seekers. I met a few people in prison who, when they were fleeing from their countries - ones recognised as being dangerous, where British citizens are advised not to go - used false documents to get into the country. When they got here, they were arrested and put in prison.

But if someone is fleeing persecution in their country from their government, how can they go and ask for their passport?

I feel betrayed, because I didn't come to this country on my own accord: I came here as a child; I didn't ask to be abandoned in this country. I accept that I committed a crime, and I paid for that. But why have I been punished twice?

During the course of my detention, the Ghanaian authorities were refusing to provide the Home Office with travel documents. So why was I detained for so long, when they knew they could not deport me? I don't have British citizenship, but does that give the Government the right to cage me like an animal?

 

Michael (not his real name) was in detention for two-and-a-half years after the end of his sentence, and released on 18 December 2014. He is being tagged by the Home Office while he waits for a decision on his asylum claim.

He is part of Freed Voices, who speak from experience on matters relating to detention.

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