Racist prisons exposed – but no action taken

On 16 December 2003 the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) finally published the second part of its Formal Investigation into HM Prison Service of England and Wales. The report is damning and details how racism pervades every part of prison life; however instead of proceeding to issue a Non-Discrimination Notice against the Prison Service, demanding improvements be implemented, as it is empowered to under the Race Relations Act, the Commission decided instead to get into bed with the perpetrators of the racism and announce a cosy partnership to implement an Action Plan to bring about reform. Nicki Jameson reports.

The CRE’s investigation into the Prison Service dealt with allegations of racism in three prisons: Brixton in south London, Parc in Wales and Feltham Young Offenders Institution in Middlesex. The report on the first part of the investigation, which dealt with the murder of Zahid Mubarek in Feltham, was published earlier last year.

The Formal Investigation began in 2000; its remit arising from three specific incidents. It is striking that none of these involved direct allegations of racist behaviour by prison staff towards prisoners. But it is not altogether surprising given both the climate of cover-up that makes prisoners’ complaints about staff racism so difficult to pursue, and the CRE’s history of apathy in the face of this difficulty. Instead two counts relate to the Prison Service’s failure to prevent racist violence by prisoners towards other prisoners and the third to an employment complaint of racial discrimination and victimisation brought by a black prison officer.

However, despite this starting point, the report is extremely detailed, deals extensively with all aspects of racism in the three prisons, and does not shy away from pointing the finger at prison staff. For example, the section on racist graffiti details not only how Welsh nationalist skinheads in Parc defaced the walls of young black prisoners’ cells with fascist insignia and acronyms, but how ‘HMP Brixton has experienced an ongoing problem with racist graffiti by staff’.

The report recognises that indirect discrimination and negative stereotyping are an ever-present feature of prison life and highlights the ‘consistent over-representation of black male prisoners in the prison disciplinary system’ and the ‘disproportionate numbers of black prisoners on the basic IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges) level’.

On paper, there are all sorts of ways in which prisoners who have been discriminated against can complain, and both the Race Relations Act and the Prison Service Order on Race Relations state that they should not be victimised for doing so. But of course on the ground the reality is different, as the report acknowledges, quoting the Race Relations Liaison Officer from Brixton: ‘If a prisoner complains about a member of staff, then you’ll usually find that 90% of the staff around are going to try to do things to get back at the prisoner for complaining about the member of staff in the first place.’
The investigation concluded that the Prison Service was guilty of 18 specific counts of unlawful racial discrimination, including:

1. Failure to protect prisoners at Parc from racial abuse, racist graffiti, assault and having things thrown at them, and failure to investigate their complaints or take disciplinary action against the assailants;
2. Failure to protect a member of prison staff from racial harassment, discrimination and victimisation;
3. Failure to investigate written racist threats made to another member of staff [an Asian pharmacist at Brixton];
4. Failure to protect a prisoner at Feltham from racial abuse and attack resulting in his jaw being broken,
or to investigate his complaint or take disciplinary action against the assailants;
5. Failure to provide facilities and services to meet the needs of Muslim prisoners at Brixton and Feltham;
6. Stereotyping black prisoners in such a way as to result in their being over-represented on the basic level of privileges and under-represented on the enhanced level;
7. Refusing or deliberately omitting to provide via the prison shop ‘hair and skin products necessary for the health and well-being of black prisoners and a diet that is culturally and religiously appropriate to ethnic minority prisoners’;
8. Victimisation of a prisoner at Brixton who complained of racism and was then subjected to ‘unauthorised and flawed drug testing’ and ‘unlawfully confined to his cell...’to “reflect” on his complaints of racism’;
9. Victimisation of prisoners at Parc who complained that officers were racist and were then put on disciplinary charges for complaining;
10. Failure to take adequate steps to prevent the victimisation of prisoners making race related complaints.

Overall the Commission found that the Prison Service ‘discriminated against prisoners in its care in that it failed to put in place an effective policy of equivalent protection which comprehensively addressed the needs of prisoners to be safe from detrimental treatment by act or omission of officers or inmates on the grounds of their race...’, ‘failed comprehensively and effectively to address the needs of ethnic minority staff and prisoners for protection from detrimental treatment...’ and ‘failed to implement a comprehensive race equality policy’.

The report conclusively demonstrates not only that the prison system is racist to the core, as everyone already knew, but that the Prison Service is breaking the law. So, where are the prosecutions? Where are the payouts to the prisoners who have been discriminated against and victimised? Where are the wholesale sackings of racist prison officers and governors? Where are the calls to close Parc, Brixton and Feltham, and to subject other prisons known for their systematic racism, such as Parkhurst, to the same level of scrutiny?

Instead, those who have been running the racist regimes are now deemed suitable to oversee their reform. So, while targets are drawn up and civil servants discuss ‘High Level Key Deliverables’, ‘Performance Improvement (Benchmarking)’ and ‘Intensive Development Schemes’, on the landings and segregation units of Britain’s overcrowded prison system it will be racist business as usual.

Prisoner wins compensation for racist remarks
A recently released prisoner has just been awarded an out-of-court settlement of £7,500 and a written apology from the Prison Service for racist remarks made to him by a prison officer at Whitemoor prison in 2001. The officer told the prisoner ‘just because you look like a monkey, doesn’t mean you have to behave like one’. Despite this being said openly in front of many witnesses, the officer denied any racist intent, and an internal Prison Service investigation only found that she should perhaps be given some ‘diversity training’ at some unspecified point in the future. The prisoner was meanwhile put in segregation, subjected to spurious disciplinary charges, cell searches and drug tests, as well as the ridicule of having monkey noises made at him and a banana skin put on the door of his cell. The CRE did not consider that there was sufficient evidence of victimisation for it to take this case, resulting in the prisoner submitting the papers himself, and then, with great difficulty, finding a solicitor to help him take the case to court.

Racist institutions
Institutional racism is prevalent in the prison system and officers still actively contribute and condone their racist colleagues. The largest breeding ground for this bigotry is segregation units, especially those in high security prisons, where all prisoners are humiliated and belittled in any way possible, be this by the use of vigorous strip-searches, strip cells and other degrading behaviour. Staff in segregation units use all issues, be it race, creed religion or sexual orientation to abuse and upset victims of a corrupt prison system, and those who do not actively verbalise their views express them in different ways. They show their xenophobia with their British bulldogs and Union Jack tattoos, or their England or George Cross lapel and tie badges.

The Prison Service also actively discriminates against people from ethnic minorities by strongly regulating procedures for foreign nationals, limiting spending on the phone, not giving any alternatives to visits for foreign nationals who don’t get them, limiting letters, not allowing them to speak on phones in their mother tongue.
Glenn P Wright RT3785, Close Supervision Centre, HMP Woodhill

Putting the house in order
Like many others, I am sick of hearing the Prison Service bang on about its troubles and the mountainous task it faces in trying to stem the flow of suicides, especially among women prisoners. Not a month goes by without the nation hearing how our prisons are full to capacity, at breaking point even.
Drugs are by far the main reason the prison population has risen so sharply during recent years. And while the Prison Service cannot be blamed for vices obtained outside its walls, it does have a duty to provide effective treatment to those entrusted to its care in order for them to have the best chance of living law-abiding lives after release.

Enter any local prison and you start to get some idea of the scale of the problem. Bodies move along the landings like zombies, barely recognisable as the people they are. Yet even at this stage, when help is most needed, treatment is being restricted and in some cases completely denied. Because prison doctors are reluctant to prescribe medication containing opiates, most detoxification programmes are a three-day affair. And whilst an addict will not refuse what is offered to try and numb the pain of withdrawal, the minute treatment stops they will be hunting the landings for the one thing that can release them from the agony. For most, relief is found in a cell just a few doors from their own in the shape of a small bag of brown powder. For those to whom prison is an alien environment there are no choices. Refused proper treatment and unable to find the prison dealer, withdrawal can be horrific. Sadly some find the prospect just too much to contemplate. You do not need an inquiry to tell you why so many prisoners are taking their own lives. It is common sense that someone with a drug problem going back ten years cannot simply be dealt with in three days.

During a recent visit to HMP Belmarsh, a prison renowned for being saturated in heroin, I was amazed to see that the problem had all but disappeared. This was not thanks to the overzealous security department, but to do with the drug Buprenorphine, which trades under the name Subutex. It is now available to all prisoners at Belmarsh who wish to detox safely and free of pain. The drug is a substitution treatment that works by blocking opiate receptors to relieve withdrawal symptoms while blocking the actions of other opiates taken subsequently. Even the most hardcore addicts describe it as a miracle. The only reason Belmarsh still has a problem is that the ten-day course still falls far short of what is needed for a lasting effect.

Up until now little else has had any impact on the growing number of drug users in prison. For the sake of a few extra pounds, the Prison Service would do well to rethink the way it runs detox programmes. Subutex should be made widely available as soon as possible. Only then will they be seen to be going some way to putting the house in order.

In the meantime, the prison population will continue to rise and, worse still, so will the number of prisoners taking their own lives, with women like Jessica Adam, Emma Levey and Sarah Campbell becoming nothing more than statistics. The clock is ticking and we are all waiting.
John Shelley, HMP Whitemoor

FRFI 177 February / March 2004


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