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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Ombudsman finds endemic discrimination in prison

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Prisons and Probation Ombudsman finds that prisoner complaints of discrimination are often minimised or disregarded undermining confidence in fairness.

Lack of resources contributes to denial of dicrimination

That was the key finding of an in-depth research report by the Zahid Mubarek Trust and the Prison Reform Trust published last April (2 April 2017).

These depressing findings are confirmed by a new  Learning Lessons Bulletin published earlier this week (17 January 2018) by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO): Complaints about Discrimination which is based on a sample of 208 complaints received between January 2012 and July 2017.

Elizabeth Moody, the Acting Ombudsman said that inadequate investigations of alleged discrimination in jails risk is undermining prisoners’ confidence in the complaints process. An analysis of more than 200 complaints handled by the PPO over five years showed that:

all too often discrimination complaints are not investigated promptly.

This is particularly troubling given David Lammy’s recent report which demonstrated clearly not only that BAME individuals are over-represented in prison but also that they are not treated fairly while inside. A reminder of some of his key findings:

  • 25% of the adult prison population are from BAME communities
  • 3% of the general population are Black but 12% of prisoners and 21% of children in custody are Black
  • 11% BAME prisoners spend 10 hours out of cell on a week day compared to 16% white prisoners
  • 6% prison officers come from BAME backgrounds compared to 26% prisoners and 14% general population

Findings

Of the personal characteristics protected by the Equality Act, the most common complaints investigated by the PPO alleged discrimination on the basis of religion, followed by disability, race, gender, nationality, sexuality, and then age.

Some of the key issues identified by the PPO in the course of their investigations were:

  • Lack of resources and priority given to investigating equalities concerns. Equalities staff were moved, complaints were lost.
  • Prison staff often responded by denying there had been any discrimination rather than investigating and responding to a complaint.
  • Little training or guidance for equalities officers.
  • The discrimination aspect of complaints was often ignored by prison staff. For example, a profoundly deaf prisoner’s hearing aid was lost during a prison transfer but his complaint was treated as if it was a simple lost property issue despite the fact that he had to survive prison life without his hearing aid for over a year.
  • The PPO found that prison staff who investigate discrimination complaints “often lack the training and confidence to address equalities issues effectively, and that prisons often fail to collect the equalities data needed to carry out a meaningful investigation. This risks undermining prisoners’ confidence in the effectiveness and legitimacy of the complaints process.”

Recommendations

The bulletin identified four areas where HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) can improve the handling of discrimination complaints:

  • Resources. In most prisons, responsibility for complaints about discrimination lies with a designated Equalities Officer. However, equalities staff often tell the PPO the hours allocated to their roles have been cut as a result of a reallocation of resources within the prison. This means Equalities Officers frequently have to do the same important job with significantly less time and fewer resources. As a result, the administration of discrimination complaints can suffer.
  • Inadequate training. The bulletin notes that “we see too many cases where it is clear that managers do not understand the issues and lack confidence in responding to complaints about discrimination.
  • Failure to address discrimination issues. “One common theme we find…is the failure to engage with and directly address issues of discrimination. In some cases, managers respond to complaints about discrimination by simply asserting there has been no discrimination, without any attempt to investigate or to address the complaint.”
  • Inadequate “big picture” information. In many cases not enough data is gathered on the personal characteristics of prisoners and key services (such as prisoner employment) to assess whether a complaint is justified or not. For example, the PPO could not investigate a complaint that only white British prisoners got the most desirable jobs in a prison because the prison did not record the characteristics of those who got such jobs.

 

All prison posts are kindly sponsored by Prison Consultants Limited who offer a complete service from arrest to release for anyone facing prison and their family. Prison Consultants have no editorial influence on the contents of this site.

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