The experiences of BAME women
The Lammy Review, chaired by David Lammy MP, is an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system. Due to be fully published in the Summer 2017, emerging findings have begun to show severe disproportionality in the criminal justice system.
Agenda and Women in Prison were asked to ensure the voices of women were being heard within The Lammy Review. They ran focus groups in prison and the community to hear the personal experiences of women from their experience of the courts, in prison and on release.
Last month (April 2017), they published the resultant report:
Four key themes emerged across all three focus groups:
- Women did not feel their voices and stories had been heard in court proceedings and were confused over process;
- Women felt that prejudices and subconscious ethnic or racial bias can affect jury assumptions and sentencing decisions;
- The impact of their sentences on their family is extensive and far-reaching;
- Language and lack of translators can be a significant barrier throughout a woman’s experience of the criminal justice system if they do not speak English fluently.
These four themes are summarised below.
Women’s voices not heard during court proceedings and confusion over process
The focus group participants felt that there had not been an opportunity for their stories and circumstances to be taken into account during their trial. Many of the women felt that important issues and circumstances had therefore not been considered, such as psychological assessments and their responsibilities to their families and children.
Many women found the legal process confusing and jargon-loaded. Many raised concerns that there is insufficient access to translators for women who do not speak English fluently. For many women, the feeling that they did not have their stories and circumstances considered during their trial and the fact that they were confused by the process and their options, underpins a sense of injustice and mistrust in the system.
Concerns around bias in jury decisions, amongst judges and in sentencing
Concerns were raised about the workings of trial by jury. None of the women thought it was a fair way of deciding if someone is guilty or not. The women who had been tried by jury raised concerns about the gender, ethnic and age make-up of their juries, and in particular concerns that they were dominated by older, white males. They felt that older men, who were not of their ethnic background, would have less understanding about their lives and pressures and may also be subconsciously biased against them.
The women did not believe that people were treated equally and fairly in sentencing. In two cases the judge said that he wanted to set an example with women’s sentences in order to deter people. Some women thought that this was an issue of subconscious bias and racial prejudice. They cited examples of white women on the same charges who they perceived had received lesser sentences.
As one woman explained:
in general outside of prison life women are treated lesser than men and I think Black, Asian people are treated lesser than white people so if you are a black or Asian woman… You’re already at a disadvantage, a double disadvantage.
Impact on family
Women raised the far-reaching impact that their involvement with the criminal justice system was having on their families, in particular their children and also elderly relatives to whom they had caring responsibilities. This was a significant concern for most of the women across the groups. Women discussed the ‘ripple effect’ of their imprisonment on their whole family.
It was felt that a woman’s caring responsibilities, particularly as a single mother in many cases, should be taken into account with sentencing decisions. This links back to the theme of women feeling that their circumstances were not heard and taken into account in the court proceedings. As more than half of black African and black Caribbean families in the UK are headed by a lone parent, compared with less than a quarter of white families, this is an issue that disproportionately affects Black women and their families.
Many women, across different ethnic groups, spoke about the stigma they faced in their community for being a BAME woman in prison. Many women felt that, in their communities, it was a greater source of shame and stigma for a woman to be in prison than a man.
It was also felt that more could be done to allow women to maintain relationships with their families. Barriers included restrictions on phone usage from lack of credit, access and also lack of privacy; being told not to speak in a foreign language on the phone even when talking to a relative that does not speak English; limited visiting times and additional visiting difficulties created when women are placed in prisons far away from their children.
Language barriers and a shortage of translators for women who do not speak English as a first language were raised as a significant problem throughout the criminal justice system. Women said that this led to confusion during court proceedings and also in prison. They gave examples of receiving court papers they could not read, having to attend medical appointments in prison where they could not understand what they were being told and facing barriers to education and rehabilitative opportunities.
Women also reported that they had been told not to speak other languages when in prison, including being told to stop speaking a foreign language when on the phone to relatives who did not speak English.
This is a valuable report which gives BAME women involved in the criminal justice system a rare opportunity to have their voices heard. We must wait for the Lammy report to see the impact of this research on that report’s recommendations.
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