Keep up-to-date with drugs and crime

The latest research, policy, practice and opinion on our criminal justice and drug & alcohol treatment systems
Tackling discrimination in prison
1 in 100 prisoners who alleged discrimination against prison staff had their case upheld but 3 out of 4 staff claims of discrimination by a prisoner were upheld

Share This Post

Still not a fair response

Only one in 100 prisoners who made an allegation of discrimination against prison staff had their case upheld by the prison. By contrast, three in four staff (76%) reports of alleged discrimination by a prisoner were upheld.

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

The report finds that the system for handling discrimination complaints in prisons is neither fair nor impartial, does not have the confidence of prisoners, and is failing to provide prisons with the opportunity to learn and provide more equitable treatment. As prisons struggle to cope with increasing violence and fewer officers, equality has slipped down the priority list.

The report

The study is based on an analysis of 610 investigations from eight London prisons covering the year 2014. It was conducted with the permission of the prison service and is the first formal study of the discrimination incident reporting form (DIRF) process in prisons since its introduction more than five years ago.

Other key findings include:

  • The threshold of proof being used to test the evidence was often too high. That is, evidence that suggested that discrimination had occurred was too often dismissed.
  • 72% of staff-submitted reports were upheld compared to only 8% of prisoners’ discrimination reports.
  • One in five complaints by staff were used to defend themselves from allegations of bias. These complaints led to negative consequences for some prisoners, including behaviour warnings, negative entries on the prisoners’ personal record and formal disciplinary sanctions. The use of report forms for defensive purposes and the victimisation of a prisoner for alleging discrimination are against policy.
  • In about a quarter of the reports, the explanation for dismissing the claim was weak, for example, merely: “no evidence of discrimination”.
  • A few investigations demonstrated good practice in that they were impartial, showed empathy, clearly explained the final decision, and used a problem-solving approach to resolve the grievance.
  • The system was not equipped to tackle subtle forms of discrimination.

Outcomes of discrimination complaints

Of the discrimination reports analysed in the study, prisoners submitted 70% and staff 30%. In total, 27% of discrimination complaints were fully upheld; 7% were partly upheld; and 39% were dismissed. In 27% of cases, the outcome was inconclusive.

The majority of complaints were about race (62%). Religion (15%) and disability (10%) were other protected characteristics reflected in the complaints. Discrimination on grounds of age, gender, and sexual orientation arose far less frequently.

Verbal abuse was the most common reason for alleging discrimination. Other situations included alleged job discrimination; lack of respect for one’s culture; being denied access to the regime; and routine favouritism.

Many people in prison have characteristics which are protected under the Equality Act 2010. For instance, one quarter (26%) of the prison population is from a minority ethnic group. This compares to 14% of the general population. 36% of prisoners are estimated to have a physical or mental disability compared to19% of the general population.

Despite legal protection, many minority groups in prison experience more negative outcomes compared with other groups. For instance, black people in prison are more likely to experience segregation, be in the high secure estate, be on the basic regime, and have force used against them. Prisoners with disabilities are more likely to face disciplinary charges, have proven adjudications, be on the basic regime, experience segregation, have force used against them, and be denied release on temporary licence.


The Equality Act 2010 requires the criminal justice system to eradicate discrimination, provide equal opportunities, and promote harmonious relations between groups. Six years on, this research shows that prisons are failing to meet their public sector equality duties.

The report recommends that the prison service should strengthen the distinct process for investigating claims of discrimination. Investigations should make greater use of problem-solving, mediation, and outside expertise to address the problems that gave rise to the complaints. In addition, a prison equality advisory group should be established to advise on policy. It also recommends the introduction of a discrimination toolkit for prisons, better access to the complaints system for people with learning disabilities, an end to the use of defensive complaints, better training for staff and more rigorous oversight of the complaints process by governors and senior managers.

Commenting in the Foreword to the report, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, said:

From the evidence in this report it is clear that, despite the policies to tackle racism and discrimination, introduced following Zahid’s death, the focus, energy and accountability to deliver equality have slid backwards.

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

The fact that the prison service allowed this study is testament to its desire to learn from independent scrutiny, but the findings show widespread failings in the complaints process. It is simply not credible that virtually every complaint of discrimination made by a prisoner about staff is false, when we know as a matter of fact that many minority groups in prison routinely experience disproportionately negative outcomes. The lack of an effective complaints system denies them an important avenue for redress, and prisons the opportunity to learn and improve. The policy framework says the right things, but it is not being delivered on the ground.

Imtiaz Amin, Director of the Zahid Mubarek Trust, said:

When Zahid Mubarek was murdered by his cellmate in March 2000, one of the key findings from the subsequent Inquiry was that his complaints to the prison authorities had fallen on deaf ears. This disturbing report shows that the system is still failing to hear and to respond effectively. Being held to account is a cornerstone of fairness, and essential to a safe and decent prison operation. Handling complaints properly – and analysing what they say about the prison’s health – is core business, and there is much to put right.


It is to be hoped that the recommendations in this study find their way into David Lammy’s much awaited inquiry into discrimination in the criminal justice system due to report this summer.


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.

Share This Post

Related posts

Prisons at bursting point

Prison capacity crisis is a perfect storm – a surge of prisoners and nowhere to put them.

Little progress on racial disparity in prisons

Prison Reform Trust reveals outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic prisoners have failed to improve more than five years after the Lammy Review into racial disparity.

2 Responses

  1. Prison staff view prisoners through the prism of guilty, wrong-doer and not deserving any of the protection that society through the law affords its most vulnerable members. Prison staff regard prisoners as people who are there to be punished in any way the staff see fit.
    There is no consideration for their humanity or that they will be released and it would be advisable to do something that will stop them offending in the future.
    In this environment prisoners are wary of making complaints that will result in their being punished in unofficial ways and lead to them spending further years in prison.
    It is not surprising that there is such a small percentage that is upheld because there is much more unity between prison staff than between prisoners. Staff persuade prisoners that their interest is not served by supporting other prisoner’s complaints and doing do may result in less chance of gaining parole or a positive move to a lower category prison etc.
    In twenty years of imprisonment in mostly the maximum security dispersal estate I did not resort to playing the race card once even though it was apparent from yhe beginning that races were treated differently. From black afro-Caribbeans being seen as dominant aggressive, indian subcontinent prisoners passive submissive and the indigenous white prisoners as somewhere in between.
    It is impossible to think that discrimination along racial lines is not happening every day.

  2. Is there some place i can read about the discrimination against prisoners families on the outside, and how bad they are discriminated against as well, esp how the local authorities and government departments and NHS treats them? Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prison posts are sponsored by Unilink


Excellence through innovation

Unilink, Europe’s provider of Offender/Probation Management Software


Get every blog post by email for free