The ethnic backgrounds of our prison population

We know that people from BAME backgrounds are over-represented in our prison population, but why does the ethnic make-up vary so much between different prisons?

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We know, from David Lammy and many other sources, that people from a BAME background are over-represented in our prisons. Last week the MoJ published its response to a number of Freedom of Information requests including one which gave the ethnicity of prisoners at every prison establishment in England and Wales on the 31st December last year.

When the data entries for prisoners whose ethnicity was either not recorded or who preferred not to provide it are removed, we can see that on New Year’s Eve 73.1% of our prison population was recorded as “white”, 12.7% as “Black/African/Caribbean/Black British”, 8.1% as “Asian/Asian British”, 4.6% as “Mixed/Multiple ethnic groups” and 1.5% as “other ethnic groups”.

What I found of more interest was how the ethnic composition different establishments varied so much. Obviously, we would expect local prisons which serve multiracial communities to have more of a mix, but I still found the breakdown provided in the FOI response intriguing.

For instance, less than one percent of the prisoners at HMPs Askham Grange, Haverigg, Kirklevington Grange and Lancaster Farms were of Black heritage. By comparison, more than a third of prisoners at Aylesbury (36.3%), Belmarsh (36.4%), Brixton (34.3%), Cookham Wood (41.3%), Feltham (41.8%), Isis (43.8%), Onley (34.9%) and Thameside (34.1%) were Black.

The highest proportion of prisoners of an Asian ethnic background were being held at: Birmingham (15%), Featherstone (16.1%), Hatfield (19.3%), Huntercombe (17.3%), Sudbury (19.1%), Werrington (15.6%) and Wormwood Scrubs (16.9%). At these establishments, more than 1 in 7 prisoners was recorded as being either Asian or Asian British.

There were also five prisons where more than one in ten prisoners was from a mixed ethnic background: Aylesbury (10.3%), Brinsford (10.8%), Cookham Wood (12%), Feltham (11.2%) and Werrington (13.8%).

On the series of charts below, the prisons are arranged in alphabetical order and you can hover over the dots to see the establishment name and percentage of the prison population from Black, Asian and Mixed ethnic backgrounds respectively.



I also found it interesting that such is the racial disproportionality in our justice system that I was able to find no fewer than 12 institutions where prisoners recorded as white were less than half the population:  Aylesbury (42.6%), Belmarsh (44.6%), Brixton (48.4%), Cookham Wood (38.9%), Feltham (32.5%), Huntercombe (43.5%), Isis (32.8%), Onley (41.6%), Pentonville (41.6%), Thameside (37.5%), Werrington (44%), and Wormwood Scrubs (42.6%).

You can also use the data to look at the ethnic profile of different categories of prison, those catering for different genders or those who mainly accommodate perpetrators of particular crimes (some institutions specialise in holding sex offenders, for instance).

Clearly this is not the most sophisticated analysis but I hope the figures may encourage some readers to take the opportunities which are provided to  all of us by such Freedom of Information responses. You can get the data here, along with information on the use of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, careless driving prosecutions, releases from selected prisons into unsettled accommodation and much more.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison  for the header image taken at HMP Wandsworth. You can see Andy’s work here.

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8 Responses

  1. 1. Is it right that prisoners are not necessarily incarcerated in prisons where they committed their crimes?
    2. To draw any important conclusions from these statistics we need to know much more…particularly the type of crime committed by the inmate and their background. Until we have a more complete picture it is not possible to make any attempt at reforming society to reduce not only the BAME prison intake but for all others as well.

  2. If you are trying to show a racial bias as to where prisoners are held then you haven’t demonstrated it. Some prisons hold mainly local, minor criminals while other, Category A, prisons hold those convicted of serious crimes such as murder and terrorism, from allover the UK. Some Cat A prison fill both roles such as Belmarsh. AFAIK prisoners will be moved to the jail most suited to their crime and risk of escaping rather than their race. Therefore I don’t think your graph proves or disproves anything. If you could add in the crime, length of sentence, the distance from the prisoners offence to the jail, and the category of the jail then you may find something meaningful.

  3. This is very useful as the breakdown of ethnicity is often grouped together. Do you have any information on the ethnicity of the staff serving in these establishments e.g. OSGs, Officer grades, SMT, education, healthcare?

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