DIVISIONS BETWEEN Black prisoners and White staff are entrenched throughout the prison service in England and Wales, and black prison staff report very negative experiences at work. But both of these problems could be tackled through taking a more creative approach focused on building mutual trust and respect.

This is one of the key findings of Thematic review: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff.

Fundamental to the divisions that the report identified were a lack of trust and communication. This informed everything from the disproportionate use of force against black prisoners through to black prisoners’ concerns that they were less likely to be offered coveted jobs or education within prison, or enhanced regimes designed to incentivise good behaviour. Black prison staff also reported of a lack of career progression and feeling isolated from other staff.

While inspectors found evidence of some overt and explicit racism, both black prisoners and staff said that subtle and insidious racism affected them more and that this was widespread and persistent. Most white prison staff the inspectorate spoke to did not recognise these findings and did not accept them. Many were adamant that they went out of their way to treat all prisoners fairly, and felt confused and frustrated that this went unrecognised.

Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said: “Our report proposes a number of solutions developed in discussion with both black prisoners and prison staff that focus on creating opportunities for respectful communication and the development of mutual understanding. These should not be seen as a replacement for existing processes to identify and tackle unacceptable behaviour. But we believe they have the potential to be transformative if the prison service is prepared to take them seriously.”

The solutions include cooking and eating together, an apparently simple activity that has deep cultural relevance and meaning. Black prisoners frequently told inspectors of the significance to them of preparing and sharing food. Several senior managers involved in the fieldwork also expressed support for the idea of prisoners and staff of all backgrounds being able to break bread together at times as a prison community.

Other pathways to improvement include ‘reverse mentoring’, whereby prisoners provide insights into their lives during private discussions with staff; joint prisoner and staff forums, and joint training and education.

All of the solutions were developed in discussion with black prisoners and prison staff, including both senior managers and frontline officers, and most build on practices which already exist within either prisons or immigration detention facilities that could be replicated more widely in this context.

Commenting on the report, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “If ministers only read one report about prisons, let it be this one. It is a compelling description of how racial discrimination may have changed in character, but not gone away. Anyone familiar with our prisons will recognise it as presenting a deeply truthful account. In doing so, it illuminates a structural failure to build the relationships between staff and prisoners on which an effective prison system depends.

“Thanks to the insight of both prisoners and staff, the report also describes very practical ways to bridge the gulfs in understanding that it describes. Those solutions utterly depend on being given the time and attention to implement them, and there are glimpses of good practice from which to learn. The benefits of doing so could be transformational.”

* Read the report here. Please note that the report includes direct mentions of explicit racism that may be distressing. Watch the launch event here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Prison Reform Trust