July 13 2024
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Persistent race discrimination found in prisons in England and Wales

Persistent race discrimination found in prisons in England and Wales

Photo by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org
Photo by Andy Aitchison, www.prisonimage.org

A new report has revealed that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic prisoners continue to experience persistent race discrimination within prison. The report calls for an ‘an urgent reprioritisation of equalities and diversity work’ by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service.

The research was carried out by the Prisoner Policy Network, which is an organisation hosted by the Prison Reform Trust, and involved discussion groups with prisoners and staff along with written contact and telephone calls with individuals in the community.

Some of those spoken to described experiencing extreme incidents of racism during their time in prison. One prisoner of Chinese nationality discussed his experience of racism during the Covid-19 pandemic which involved being called ‘China man’ by officers or ‘Chinese virus’ by others, as well as being told not to breathe to ‘stop spreading coronavirus’ when collecting food.

Another extremely concerning example was given by a prisoner of Muslim nationality who said the ‘staff think I’m a terrorist’ and explained how feeling under ‘suspicion puts you on edge all the time.’ He also described staff as overthinking-everything and recounted having once asked for eggs and being told ‘you can make a bomb with eggs.’

Other prisoners from minority ethnic groups also described experiences of racial bias being prevalent. One prisoner who had previously worked in the NHS as a healthcare professional said he was not prepared for how much his race or ethnic group would impact upon his treatment in prison. He went on to explain, ‘I can now say with conviction that, as a BAME prisoner, the bar is set higher for me /us compared to the white Caucasian inmate in every respect,’ which included access to jobs, healthcare and programmes. He continued, ‘The issue is underlying, imbedded and institutionalised, and it’s looming. You can feel it, see it but you can’t put a finger on it or even question it.’

Other concerning comments from prisoners included one saying he feels ‘like a slave’ but that ‘instead of getting whipped we get basic,’ whilst another explained their view that  ‘prison is designed to make black people fail.’

Significantly, those prisoners affected by racism also accepted it as a ‘depressing normality’ and described having little faith in the robustness or independence of the internal complaints system at prison, particularly where the incident involved staff. One prisoner explained, ‘I don’t bother with their processes, they mark their own homework don’t they, so they always get straight As.’

A significant contribution to the continuing problem of racism was considered to be a lack of diversity amongst staff due to staff shortages and difficulties recruiting staff members from BAME backgrounds. This was particularly seen to be problematic in rural areas and the North of England.

One staff member commented on the lack of diversity amongst the staff saying: ‘We know that overall BME groups are disproportionately overrepresented in prison. However that certainly doesn’t seem to be reflected in staff. In my time here (seven years), I have encountered a few non-white staff but they are rare this cannot be good for the staff prisoner dynamic.’

Paula Harriot, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust, explained that the insufficient staff numbers and lack of officer diversity in prisons was ‘not only leading to unequal treatment—and in some cases overt racism’ but was ‘crucially…limiting the support and reporting mechanisms which would help to restore confidence amongst prisoners that staff will address incidents.’ She called for urgent action to ‘address these issues and prioritise equalities work to ensure a fair and inclusive environment for all prisoners.’

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