More than one in 10 inmates in the UK's crowded jails is a foreign national. But an early release scheme to free up cell space has caused confusion among inmates and prison governors alike.
By Jon Silverman
Home affairs analyst
Last October, the government announced that some foreign nationals in prisons in England and Wales would be released early and deported to free up places in our severely overcrowded jails.
Prisons are all but full
Since that announcement, which was incorporated into the Criminal Justice Act, the unofficial grapevine - a tried and tested conduit for circulating rumour around prisons - has been buzzing. Many inmates, who have no hope of being included, are convinced they will be going home soon. Even some governors are unsure about who will benefit.
What is going on? And what preparations are being made to ease the return home of one class of prisoner - drug couriers - who outnumber all other foreign offenders in the UK?
The intention is to bring foreign nationals into line with British offenders who currently benefit from the Home Detention Curfew scheme if they are serving between three months and four years, and are not thought to be a risk to the public.
Long way from home
This sounds quite clear, but when a Home Office official went to Drake Hall prison in Staffordshire, the inmates - roughly one-third of whom are Jamaican - got the impression that all foreign nationals could be eligible, no matter the length of their sentence.
A letter to prison governors telling them to ensure that prisoners' passports were up-to-date merely added to the confusion.
No-one knows when the scheme will take effect, or how many inmates it might benefit. Last autumn, the Home Office suggested that about 400 places might be freed up. Others have speculated that up to 2,000 inmates could be eligible.
There are thought to be 550 Jamaican women, overwhelmingly "drugs mules", in prison here. Those serving less than four years who might be freed early face a number of obstacles.
Firstly, the immigration service must be ready to deport them. But it can only be prepared if notified well in advance by the prison - and if staff are unsure about which women will be eligible, delay seems inevitable.
Then there's the question - the paramount one, for many of the women - of what will happen to them on their return. The charity, Hibiscus, is so concerned about resettlement that it has convened a spring conference in Kingston to bring together UK and Jamaican authorities.
Olga Heaven, the Hibiscus director, backs the principle of early release. "It's good for the women and it saves the UK taxpayer money. But a lot of these drugs couriers are frightened for their lives when they go back, and we don't think the Jamaican correctional services are in any position to protect them."
Many became drugs mules to escape deprivation
The prison service here is not convinced that there's a major personal safety problem. But those who have worked in Jamaica know the general cultural stigma attached to people who return from "foreign" after a spell in jail, and the viciousness of the drugs overlords who sent them abroad in the first place.
More rigorous screening at Kingston airport and publicity campaigns have helped cut significantly the number of drugs couriers bound for the UK.
But the market is such that mules from other Caribbean islands and from Nigeria are filling the gap. Last year, foreign inmates outnumbered UK nationals at one prison, Morton Hall in Lincolnshire, for the first time.
This makes it all the more imperative that the early release plan is implemented smoothly, and without causing more problems than it solves.