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People with lived experience of modern slavery in UK prisons

Research project examining the mechanisms in place to identify and support survivors of modern slavery in UK prisons

The statutory guidance for the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 expressly notes that prisons have responsibility for identifying and supporting survivors of modern slavery and for raising awareness of the issue amongst prisoners and staff.

However, there is limited knowledge of how many people who had experienced modern slavery are in prisons across the UK and of the treatment they receive. Little is known if current legislation, policies , and their implementation allow for identification and support of modern slavery survivors in custody.

A third of adults referred to the National Referral Mechanism – a UK-wide mechanism for identifying survivors – reported that they had been compelled to commit crimes while they were trapped in the modern slavery situation. Although the Modern Slavery Act 2015 aims to provide protection from prosecution for such people, anecdotal evidence suggests that in many instances, their status as a survivor of modern slavery has not been considered or deemed relevant during criminal proceedings against them, often resulting in imprisonment. Not only is this contrary to legislation, but it also means that people responsible for subjecting individuals to modern slavery may go unpunished.

Dr Marija Jovanovic from the University of Essex, in partnership with Dr Patrick Burland from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and a team from the Hibiscus Initiatives, will carry out research to better understand what happens to people with lived experience of modern slavery in the prison system.

They will evaluate the existing policies and legislation to assess whether these allow for appropriate identification and support of the survivors of modern slavery in prisons and articulate reforms needed to bring domestic law and policy in line with the UK’s international obligations. The project will also examine current institutional practices giving effect to such laws and policies and identify any discrepancies between the rules and their application.

The project will combine several research methods. Firstly, the research team will analyse relevant laws and policies and review academic literature through a desktop analysis. Secondly, they will assess institutional practices by carrying out a survey for prisons in the UK and organisations supporting survivors of modern slavery, supplemented by interviews with key actors in this area. This will generate data about the adequacy of relevant policies and training for identifying and supporting modern slavery survivors in prisons.

Thirdly, the research will include voices and perspectives of the survivors of modern slavery who have experienced imprisonment in the UK. This will include both people imprisoned for crimes committed within a situation of trafficking and those where there was no apparent nexus between the crime they were imprisoned for and their status as a victim of modern slavery.

The research will aim to contribute to mainstreaming modern slavery within policy and legal frameworks for the oversight of prisons.

Research team: Dr Marija Jovanovic (University of Essex), Patrick Burland (IOM), the Hibiscus Initiatives.

This research was funded by an open call on the links between modern slavery and wider laws and policies, run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council.