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The experiences of Black men in prison and Black prison staff
Divisions between black prisoners and white prison staff are entrenched throughout the prison service, and black prison staff report very negative experiences at work.

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We need to improve the treatment of Black prisoners & Black staff

Today’s (13 December 2022) HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ thematic review into the experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff is a landmark report. It highlights the fact that divisions between black prisoners and white prison staff are entrenched throughout the prison service, and that black prison staff report very negative experiences at work. The Inspectorate urges action and says that both of these problems could be tackled through taking a more creative approach focused on building mutual trust and respect. 

The review

The inspectorate set out to gain an in-depth understanding of prisoners who identify as black men and to suggest what could be done to improve their experience of prison life. Inspectors interviewed 100 black prisoners, 17 key managers, including governing governors, and 66 other staff of all ethnicities.

Key findings

Inspectors found that problems in the relationships that underpin positive communication were at the heart of the issue. Black prisoners generally felt that staff viewed them as a group rather than as individuals, were not genuine in the way they related to them and did not have enough understanding of their distinct cultures.

White staff often associated black prisoners with gangs, and black prisoners felt that this had far-reaching implications for their day-to-day treatment and progression. When inspectors spoke to officers, they often denied that there was a problem with discrimination or that prisoners experienced racism. They said that black prisoners would often accuse them of racism without good reason – described as ‘playing the race card’ – in order to deflect criticism or sanction. The use of this term was a shorthand for dismissing prisoner concerns, discouraging staff self-reflection, and undermining prisoners’ confidence that they would be taken seriously. This wide gulf between the experiences of black prisoners and white officers exposed the extent of the challenges that the report aims to address.

The use of force

Difficulties in relationships between black prisoners and staff also informed the inspectorate’s findings on the use of force. Risk assessment is central to the daily operation of a prison, and both prisoners and staff told us that staff were interpreting behaviour that they found unexpected, hard to understand or discomforting as indicators of risk rather than difference. One of the key requirements for effective de-escalation and the avoidance of conflict is the ability of staff to communicate confidently with prisoners, and this is supported by good existing relationships which were sorely missing.

Mutual suspicion

Inspectors set out how poor relationships between black prisoners and staff that were characterised by mutual suspicion were contributing to escalation of perceived risk and the disproportionately high use of force that they found against black prisoners.  The inspectorate calls for a better understanding of how risk is ascribed to black prisoners and how it then affects their subsequent prison journey.

 

Below I reproduce two quotes from the report and a section of commentary by the Inspectorate.

'You see black people in general… we're talking to each other, we're bantering, we're all loud... these people over here, they're not used to that... they're saying “oh my god, this is a 'gang', what is going on”... they're thinking these guys are bullies. But they don't understand that's just us being us, that's just how we grew up, that's how our aunties are, that's how our mums are, that's how our dads are.'

‘Something might happen and you might go back behind your door and think, was that because I am black?... Am I being paranoid?... Am I crazy?’

One part of each group meeting with staff was devoted to briefly telling them the key results from our prisoner surveys and asking for their views. The most common reactions were to be defensive and/or dismissive about black prisoners’ negative reporting. For example, in one group of experienced white staff, there was no acknowledgement of the possibility that prisoners genuinely experienced racism in their establishment, and the group went as far as saying that prisoners were either wrong or lying if they reported that they had experienced or seen racism. The staff were adamant that they treated everyone the same and – in common with most white staff we interviewed – felt that black prisoners ‘played the race card’ routinely.

The experiences of black staff

Black staff told inspectors they had  mainly positive relationships with black prisoners, most often citing a shared culture and similar background. Several said that this explained why black prisoners were more likely to seek support from them when they needed it, including confiding in them about experiences of racism or discrimination.

Others said it helped them to challenge prisoners with problematic behaviours or attitudes without the situation becoming confrontational; for example, one officer described how his relationship with black prisoners meant he was able, during a Pride event, to tackle some black prisoners’ homophobic assumptions. Black staff reported that prisoners referred to them using familial terms such as ‘uncle’ or ‘sister’, which are terms of respect in African and Caribbean cultures.

However, these relationships had complex dynamics and were not uniformly positive. Some black staff said they were seen as no different from other officers or were treated with hostility for being part of a racist prison system.

Many black staff described their ability to develop stronger working relationships with black prisoners as a double-edged sword. Many talked of the constant fear of being accused of corruption or favouritism by white prisoners or staff.

This led to a fear among black staff of being under constant scrutiny. Interestingly, black prisoners were often sympathetic, acknowledging that staff had to moderate their relationships with them in front of their colleagues to avoid accusations of collusion, even if on a one-to-one level they were supportive.

Black staff also talked about the everyday racism they experienced at work and, echoing the experiences of black prisoners, said they were not confident to report discrimination by colleagues because of the potential repercussions and a lack of faith in the confidentiality of the process.

Credible ways to make progress

In addition to highlighting the problem of racism in prisons, the inspectorate sought “credible ways of making progress”. Inspectors explored promising ideas that were often generated by black prisoners and staff themselves. These included familiar short-term concrete actions, such as ensuring accountability for discriminatory behaviour and good quality data and ethnic monitoring, which could be used to identify and address discrimination.

Alongside important procedural approaches, the measures supported by both staff and prisoners were largely those intended to create opportunities for respectful communication and the development of mutual understanding. They included cooking and eating together, an apparently simple activity that has deep cultural relevance and meaning; ‘reverse mentoring’, whereby prisoners provide insights into their lives during private discussions with staff; joint prisoner and staff forums, and joint training and education. These initiatives require long-term commitment from both staff and leaders to work in ways that may be more personally challenging than the more bureaucratic approaches to promoting race equality currently in place. However, the proposals in this report broadly focus on communication; this is clearly aligned to the core prison officer role and would benefit all prisoners, regardless of ethnicity.

While inspectors highlight the importance of  greater staff diversity, they emphasise that the character, capability and professionalism of staff  were also critical factors in achieving progress. They noted that many staff were also looking for help to understand and improve their work with black prisoners, and this report identifies pathways to progress.

Recommendations

The inspectorate highlights two main suggestions to promote positive change.

  1. Black prisoners wanted professional and accountable staff. This generally meant well-led prisons where high standards of behaviour were demonstrably enforced by leaders and helped to protect prisoners from discriminatory treatment.
  2. Black prisoners, managers and many staff of all ethnicities were keen to find spaces for safe expression and communication. Suggestions included: reverse mentoring; forums to promote dialogue, food as a means of connection and comfort and events to promote expression and discussion.

 

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

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