By Christopher Stacey, Chief Executive of Prisoners Abroad

About a month ago, I landed back at Heathrow airport after spending a few days in Madrid. I travelled alongside a colleague from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) to undertake my first ‘familiarisation visit’ since becoming chief executive of Prisoners Abroad last May. In this blog, I wanted to share some reflections on what stood out to me about my trip. 

1. The impact of visiting people in prison in person 

Behind the USA and Australia, Spain is the third largest country in terms of the number of British citizens that we are supporting in prison overseas.

When we were developing the programme for the trip, I had one request – I wanted to meet people that we are supporting. So, I was pleased we were able to visit Centro Penitenciario de Aranjuez (known as “Madrid VI”), which is an hour's drive south of Madrid.  

Shown around by the director, Elsa López, and alongside colleagues from the British Embassy’s consular team, we managed to see various aspects of the prison, including healthcare, education, and even the conjugal visiting area. I was able to see where people can make video calls, which I was to later find out were cheaper than the traditional telephone system.  

In the induction area, I was given a copy of the national ‘Prison: Step by step’ guide, which had been translated into English and had a section about foreign nationals – very relevant if you’re a British person in a Spanish prison.  

This prison holds men and women, and we were shown a mother and baby unit where two cells are knocked into one to provide additional space for a double bed, a cot, and an extra single bed. Some years ago, there were two Britons that met and ended up getting married while there.  

Undoubtedly the highlight, though, was visiting the British men that we are currently supporting in this particular prison. We were taken into a theatre – with chairs fixed to the floor in rows – and shortly afterwards, Simon* and Alex* walked in. We weren’t aware that we would be doing an open visit – and it was the first time that consular staff had met the two men in this way, too.  

I was able to speak to both of them for some 45 minutes each, asking them questions about how they were doing, finding out how they were copying with the language barrier and learning to develop their Spanish. We were also able to identify a couple of issues to pick up on their behalf during the rest of the visit.  

One of them had been taking Spanish lessons – he had started by going to English classes in the prison, so the Spanish teacher could help him with basic Spanish – and these have been really helpful to him in navigating day-to-day life in the prison. In the initial information packs we send to people about our work, we include translation books because we know how difficult and isolating it can be in prison in a foreign country,where you don’t speak the language.

I was lucky on my visit that I was accompanied by people who spoke fluent Spanish and could translate for me – but even that experience highlighted how vulnerable you feel when you don’t understand the language being used around you. Hearing him talk about the benefit of language lessons really cemented in me the importance of helping people to develop their confidence in understanding the common language of the prison.  

In preparation for my visit, colleagues from the Prisoners Abroad casework team had put together packs of information – including details about the support we can provide, a newspaper, a distraction pack of puzzles, and a book – for me to give to each of them, and they were both really grateful to receive these.  

Strikingly, one of the men reflected on how he’d received two Christmas cards from Prisoners Abroad. He said: “They were the only two Christmas cards I received – they don’t really celebrate Christmas here, and it was so nice to be reminded of home and that people were thinking about me.”

Surprisingly, we also met a third British man. He wasn’t someone we were aware of in the prison, because he had turned down consular assistance when he was first arrested. It became clear as we spoke why he had declined consular assistance, which made me reflect on one of the challenges that we are aware of – that making sure every British person in prison overseas know there is an independent charity out there to support them. We often only find out about people who need our help once the consulate has been notified, and consular staff pass our information on in their initial visit. However, this particular situation demonstrated how consular staff aren’t always aware of everyone either. I was pleased to be able to take this man’s details and tell him that our overseas casework team back in the UK would be in touch with him.  

This made me reflect on the power of in-person visits. Going into the prison helped us better understand some of the issues these particular men were facing (and resolve some of them pretty swiftly), as well as helped us provide assistance to another British person.  
2. The value of consular support

On the first day of my trip, I was pleased to meet with the FCDO’s consular regional director for Europe South, Fleur Willson. One of the things that Fleur described as her focus was bringing consistency to consular support across Spain.  

Currently, consular staff conduct visits to British people in Spanish prisons once a year when the person is on remand, and then once more when someone is sentenced. They can carry out additional visits where they are needed.  

To better support people in prison, a couple of members of the consular team have taken on the role of ‘prisoner lead’ and are developing practical tools, templates, and guides that the wider team across Spain can draw on. I was able to share some reflections on how positive this was to see, and to offer our support in helping to embed this, as we know that it will benefit the people we support. For example, a newly developed ‘arrest pack’ will help to set out the items that consular staff will take in when they conduct their first visit to someone in detention, including information about Prisoners Abroad.  

It was clear to me how helpful consular staff found a weekly consular bulletin (which is produced centrally by the FCDO and shared globally). Prisoners Abroad will often send content to be included in this bulletin when there is something that we want to particularly highlight, so it was good to hear how valuable it is for consular teams.  

The six FCDO consular regional directors from around the world with Prisoners Abroad staff

Spain is quite rare in that the consular team  in the country lead on the casework related to people in prison as well as with their families at home, whereas is most parts of the world (mostly due to time zones and translation challenges) the contact with families is overseen by a consular casework team in London. It seemed like the model in Spain had a number of advantages, particularly in ensuring more joined-up communication.  

Overall, I came away impressed with the Spanish team's approach to supporting British people in prison, striving towards consistency across the country, and the importance of the partnership with Prisoners Abroad. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can continue to build on this and do more in-depth work with colleagues in Spain in the future.  
3. The importance of information sharing

One of the strengths of Prisoners Abroad’s partnership with the FCDO and the consular network across the world is that we’re able to work together to support British people in prison overseas.  

But the strength of this partnership in practice relies on good information sharing. As a charity, we have worked hard over the years to be clear about who we are, what we do, and how the people who need it can access our support. When people sign up to access our services, they also give consent for us to share information with and receive information from the FCDO. This helps us to establish that someone is a British citizen, to see if they are receiving consular assistance, and to follow up with consular staff as particular situations arise.  

Changes to data protection regulations over the years mean that we are constantly looking to make sure that there is a good understanding of what this consent means in practice. During my visit, I talked to consular staff about how they can make sure they are allowed to share information with us, and we discussed how the consular team can ensure it is always clear in their case management system when there is consent to share information with Prisoners Abroad once they have received our completed forms.

4. Understanding the different challenges in different countries  

After immersing myself in Spain for a few days, I felt like I came away with a good understanding of how British people experience the prison system in Spain, as well as some of the unique challenges. It also helped me to appreciate that every country faces its own challenges. There are a high number of British citizens living in Spain – some 400,000 - and there are a number of consulate posts across the country. That’s in sharp contrast to many other countries around the world, where the prison conditions are horrific, there’s only one or two British people in prison, and the consulate is much less well resourced.  

As a charity, we are proud of the positive partnership that we have with the FCDO and the consular network around the world. 

A week or so after returning to the UK, I was pleased that we were able to host at our office a visit by all six consular regional directors from around the world. It was a timely reminder for us all that there is a worldwide effort to support British people in prison overseas and look after their welfare.  

One of the reasons that we were able to make the visit happen in Spain is because there was a keenness from the consulate in Spain. Despite it always being a challenge to resource this type of trip, I look forward to exploring how we can do things like this in the future with other countries, as it’s clear to me that there’s been some real benefits that will help to strengthen the work of the consulate and the work of Prisoners Abroad as a charity, and ultimately – and most importantly – benefit British people in prison overseas.  

*We have changed Simon and Alex's names to protect their identity. 

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