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Minority ethnic prisoners’ experiences of rehabilitation
There is a considerable gap between black and minority ethnic prisoners and prison staff in their understanding of how ethnicity influences rehabilitation and resettlement.

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Not enough understanding

Yesterday (28 October 2020), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons published a thematic review into Minority ethnic prisoners’ experiences of rehabilitation and release planning. The main finding was that there is considerable gap between black and minority ethnic (BME) prisoners and prison staff in their understanding of how ethnicity influences rehabilitation and resettlement.

About a third of BME prisoners interviewed for the review felt that their ethnicity had a significant impact on their experience but almost no staff felt the same. BME prisoners referred to a lack of understanding about their cultural backgrounds and differences, the lack of diversity of prison staff, previous experiences of discrimination in prison and unfair access to jobs.

Inspectors concluded that staff had insufficient understanding of BME prisoners’ distinct experiences of prison life, and how ethnicity might influence their engagement with rehabilitative work. Not enough was being done to improve communication with BME prisoners.

Publishing the report Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: 

“Increasing mutual understanding of this problem is a critical task if the relationships which form the bedrock of rehabilitative culture are to be nurtured. “We found that the concept of rehabilitative culture currently held little meaning for BME prisoners, even where staff thought that this was what they were delivering.”

The report urges a “reimagining of what rehabilitative culture means and how it can be better communicated and delivered, as well as a frank assessment of how experiences of prejudice and discrimination affect the promise of rehabilitative culture for minority ethnic prisoners.”

Racial disparity

Black and minority ethnic (BME) groups are greatly overrepresented in the prison population: as of March 2020, 27% of prisoners were from a BME background, compared with only 13% of the general population. People who identify as ‘black’ are imprisoned at an even more disproportionate rate: they comprise only 3% of the general population but 13% of adult prisoners. Mr Clarke said: 

“People from a BME background have less trust in the criminal justice system than white people and worse perceptions of the system’s fairness.
Developing a greater understanding of the perceptions of prisoners and disproportionalities in the prison system, and finding ways to address them, is an important task for those working in prisons. This thematic review is a small but original contribution to that effort.
Little has been written on BME prisoners’ experiences of offender management and resettlement services, and there is very limited work on the increasingly influential concept of ‘rehabilitative culture’ and the degree to which efforts to achieve it have taken account of the specific experiences of BME prisoners.”

© Andy Aitchison

Rehabilitation and release planning

Rehabilitation and release planning is not a well-understood area for any prisoners, in part because systems for supporting rehabilitation have been in flux for several years. Procedures for assessing prisoners’ risks and offending-related needs, managing sentence progression and helping them to prepare for release have been subject to regular reform and changes in practice. Most notably, a new offender management in custody (OMiC) model is currently being rolled out across the prison system  and the outsourcing of pre- and post-release services to community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) is being largely phased out in favour of a more unified service provided by the National Probation Service.

Diverse communities

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) prisoners are also greatly overrepresented in prisons while, Mr Clarke added, “distinctive needs they may have are not well identified or addressed. The experiences of this group are therefore included in this review, although, as is made clear, poor identification of GRT prisoners limited the number that we were able to interview.”

Mr Clarke underlined the importance of understanding the complexity of terms such as ‘black and minority ethnic’ in future research. 

“Throughout this project, we have been acutely aware that there are considerable problems with using collective terms such as ‘black and minority ethnic’. Such descriptions imply a false homogeneity of experience between culturally different minority groups and will always understate the uniqueness of each of them.
It is important to state at the outset that we consider this review a starting point for more sophisticated and granular analyses that will be required to help improve our understanding of the complexity of human experiences and identities. The lack of a sufficiently wide range of data held by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) relating to both participation and outcomes in activities, rehabilitative work and release planning became increasingly clear during our fieldwork. Addressing this problem is a challenge that we set out to HMPPS in our recommendations.”


This thematic review identifies positive practices which can provide direction for system-wide reforms. For example, the fact that minority ethnic women at HMP New Hall felt included in the prison’s rehabilitative culture is worthy of further exploration. The Inspectorate also identified specific programmes and support for BME and GRT prisoners which were valued by prisoners and staff alike. HMIP draws attention to how specialist voluntary sector organisations in particular can help BME and GRT prisoners to feel more included in rehabilitative work and to engage more effectively in pre-release processes. 

Inspectors also noted several important ways to initiate, and improve, trusting relationships between staff and prisoners. These included resolving practical issues, behaving consistently, motivating prisoners by recognising their strengths and abilities and implementing personalised, methodical approaches to deliver rehabilitation and preparation for release. These points apply to prisoners from all backgrounds.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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