AN urgent reprioritisation of equalities and diversity work is needed by the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service according to a new report published by the Prison Reform Trust.

The report is based on a national consultation, conducted by the Prisoner Policy Network (PPN), a network of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and supporting organisations hosted by the Prison Reform Trust. It includes contributions from both prisoners and staff and seeks to understand how contributors’ own ethnicity had impacted on their time in prison, and to explore their views on racial equality and discrimination in the system.

The PPN engaged with a variety of prisons across England and Wales, conducting in-depth discussion groups with prisoners and interviews with staff. It also received written responses, letters, emails, and conducted one-on-one telephone calls with individuals in the community. ​The intention of the report is to stimulate positive action, with clear recommendations for change.

Earlier analysis conducted by the Prison Reform Trust found that outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic prisoners had failed to improve more than five years after the publication of David Lammy’s seminal review of the criminal justice system.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons has previously highlighted the scale of the challenge that remains in bridging radically different perceptions of the extent of racism in prisons. Black prisoners and staff described examples of persistent race discrimination in their prison, while white staff felt there was very little or none.

Both staff and prisoners stated that training was important if cultural understanding was to be improved, although for some this needed to go beyond typical training programmes and needed to be rethought entirely.

Recommendations included supporting knowledge exchange between officers working in rural, less diverse areas and those working in areas where there is a greater collective and organisational understanding of how to work with people from various ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds.

There was also a desire for more opportunities for prisoners and staff from various cultural backgrounds to share knowledge and experiences (and food) in a setting that is open and safe for all to participate.

The report found that in most of the prisons visited, staff were concerned that equalities and diversity work did not have sufficient priority. This is despite the work and attention of the Race Action Programme in place since late 2020. This is sadly a familiar pattern, where efforts by the prison service to address the persistent evidence of disproportionate treatment of people in its care quickly become overshadowed, as priorities change, and operational crises divert attention.

The report highlights the impact this has on those who live and work in our prisons. This includes a lack of diversity among staff – particularly in management positions; poor cultural awareness and stereotyping; differential treatment and discrimination; racial tensions; and a lack of accountability for the prison service.

One prisoner of Chinese nationality who contributed to the PPN’s consultation wrote extensively about his experience of blatant racism becoming intolerable during the Covid pandemic. He said: “Being constantly named ‘China man’ by officers definitely didn’t help. People decided to pick on me. I was referred to in public and private as ‘Chinese virus’. When I collected food, people asked if I’d stop breathing and stop spreading coronavirus.”

Another prisoner responding to the consultation said: “Diversity in the staff group is different. If you’re in an inner-city jail, there are different people in the staff group. But at [a prison in the North of England] it’s totally different. No staff are Black or Asian and all the prisoners are white.”

This lack of awareness was considered by some as the cause of stereotypes, and also extended into religious practices. Speaking about his own experience, one prisoner said: “I’m Muslim, so staff think I’m a terrorist. That suspicion puts you on edge all the time. They look at you as if you’re up to something. They over-think everything. I asked for eggs. They go, ‘But you can make a bomb with eggs.’”

Both staff and prisoners stated that training was important if cultural understanding was to be improved, although for some this needed to go beyond typical training programmes and needed to be rethought entirely. One staff member who participated in the consultation said: “Most training is delivered through e-learning, and it doesn’t work. It’s click and forget; we need face-to-face learning for staff.”

Commenting, Paula Harriott, Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust said: “Prisoners told us that insufficient staff numbers and a lack of officer diversity in some prisons are undermining efforts to tackle racism in prisons.

“These are not only leading to unequal treatment – and in some cases overt racism – but crucially, are limiting the support and reporting mechanisms which would help to restore confidence amongst prisoners that staff will address incidents

“The conclusion of the prison service’s Race Action Programme this year could not have come at a worse time. Urgent action is needed to address these issues and prioritise equalities work to ensure a fair and inclusive environment for all prisoners.“

* Read: Race to the top: A PPN report on race and ethnicity in prisons here.

* Source: Prison Reform Trust