Unlike the rest of the UK, immigration detainees used to be detained within the Northern Ireland prison system and this gave cause for concern.
The report Measuring Misery, published June 2004, drew attention to the trend of detaining increasing numbers of asylum seekers in Northern Ireland. It also indicated that the reasons for detention here often fell outside the categories that are acceptable under United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines. There were anxieties around treatment and conditions but the major campaign issue was around the stigmatising by imprisonment of people who were not convicted of any crime. A number of bodies, including the Churches, made representations to Government.
The NI Prison Service closed Mourne House (the section of Maghaberry Prison where women prisoners and immigration detainees were held) and in June 2004 all women prisoners were moved to Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre. The male detainees were sent to a dedicated wing in a small prison ‘work out unit’ on Belfast’s Crumlin Road. This move brought better conditions for the male detainees than in Maghaberry. There was free association all day and no lock up in individual cells but there were still unresolved issues such as the poor access to medical supervision, lack of psychiatric support, lack of activities, little daylight in the building etc.
The situation for female detainees remained similar to what it had been in Maghaberry. The cells were smaller and without toilet facilities. Food was a constant source of complaint. Although staff shortages were no longer an issue, female detainees still spent long hours, locked in individual cells, without access to incoming phone calls. Access to a phone was possible only during free association time and was restricted to a ‘pre-entered’ list of numbers. This caused difficulties in obtaining legal support and immigration advice. A further concern about the arrangements was the separation of families and the fact that female detainees were still held alongside convicted prisoners.
Maghaberry remained the place where male detainees were processed and assessed, before being sent to the Crumlin Road unit. In most cases they were held for 24 to 48 hours before being transferred. There were examples, however of people still being held for long periods in Maghaberry and it would appear that some detainees were never brought to the Crumlin Road Unit.
In 2005 the Government ended immigration detention within the NI prison system. To find out the present situation read how immigration policies are enforced today.