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Racial divisions in prisons: old problems need new solutions

Blog from Hindpal Singh Bhui, lead inspector for the thematic review into the experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff.

…over the last five to 10 years a lot of the positive stuff we were doing [around] race and equality has basically been swept aside and forgotten about…

Staff group

I have been thinking about racism in prisons for a long time, and at least since I first worked in one in the late 1990s and saw at first hand the degradation and psychological pain that it can inflict on people in prison. Our new report uncovers on a wider scale the human stories and emotions that both cause and result from racial tensions. It is a result of the painstaking efforts of a committed inspectorate team determined to listen to what prisoners and staff had to say, and excellent external advisors who at every step challenged us to do justice to the important task we had taken on.

Racial disproportionality in prisons is no secret of course – black people make up 3% of the general population but 13% of prisoners, and they usually report worse experiences of prison life than white prisoners. For example, we found that adult male black prisoners were more likely than other ethnic groups to tell us that they were physically restrained and segregated, and their accounts were backed up by prison service data showing that there were indeed more use of force incidents involving black prisoners than other ethnic groups. Sadly, these findings were not particularly surprising or new, and there has been a gradual loss of focus on race in prisons over time as the importance of race and racism to prison life has become obscured: a key piece of learning, reiterated by our current report, is that tackling the causes of the poor experiences reported by black prisoners and black staff will improve prisons for everyone, regardless of ethnicity.

So, what is going on? In the last 20 years, various reports and inquiries have tried to understand and address these concerns but they have either had little empirical research on which to base an analysis, or they don’t include both prisoners and staff in their scope. In this report, we wanted to provide a deep vein of evidence, rooted in the experience of prisoners and staff, which could become the basis for action.

Our most recent previous work addressing issues of race was a review of minority ethnic prisoners’ experiences of rehabilitation and release planning published in 2020, our first for 15 years to address issues of race. That report provided valuable broad evidence, but we did not have enough data to break down findings between minority ethnic groups. This time, we wanted to avoid collapsing together data on people with very different cultural identities to provide a more sophisticated, granular analysis that could inform policy and practice. Similarly, despite very good reasons to include women’s or children’s prisons in our fieldwork, we focused narrowly on adult men self-identifying as black, the largest single adult minority ethnic group in custody.

We were determined to avoid delivering another report highlighting problems without also exploring potential solutions. Many of the report’s findings are shocking and disturbing, and we have applied no filters to the language that was used by our interviewees. But there is also much hope and many constructive suggestions for change grounded in the experience of people who work and live in the prison community. These solutions require imagination and commitment to implement, but there is no reason in theory why this cannot be achieved. In future blogs, we will explore our key findings and some of the ideas for positive change that came directly from prisoners and staff themselves.

Read the report: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff