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Who gets respect in prison?
Prisoners from non-white backgrounds and younger prisoners less likely to be treated with respect by staff.

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Analysis of 62,644 prisoner surveys

A new article in the June issue of the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice analyses survey data, collected by HM Inspectorate of Prisons between 2010 and 2019, to examine the responses of adult male prisoners of different ages and ethnicities on the extent to which they report being treated with respect by staff. The research, conducted by Anthony Quinn, Nick Hardwick and Rose Meek from Royal Holloway stems from a feasibility study conducted by the authors in partnership with HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales (HMIP) to examine whether data archived by HMIP can be made more widely accessible for research purposes. The Inspectorate has systematically collected this survey data for the last two decades and the information may be a treasure trove for penal researchers. 

This study, entitled: “With Age Comes Respect? And for Whom Exactly? A Quantitative Examination of White and BAME
Prisoner Experiences of Respect Elicited through HM Inspectorate of Prisons Survey Responses” uses data on the experiences of prisoners of different ages and ethnic backgrounds and illustrates the importance and value of these data for future research.

It goes without saying that positive relationships between prisoners and prison officers are fundamental to a healthy and well-functioning prison. They are also essential to procedural justice, the notion that to inspire confidence, the criminal justice system must be seen to operate fairly and honestly.

Within the HMIP prisoner survey, the first question in the section entitled ‘Relationships with staff’ was:

‘Do most staff here treat you with respect?’ 

The researchers analysed responses to this question with three objectives in mind:

  1. to identify differences in experiences of respect in prison across age groups;
  2. to investigate how experiences of respect further differ by ethnicity;
  3. to provide a macro-level analysis of how experiences of staff respect differs within each Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) category.

The researchers cite David Lammy’s review which highlighted that BAME prisoners are less likely than white prisoners to report positive relationships with prison staff . This was in a context where BAME prisoners formed a disproportionate part of the prison population comprising 25% of prisoners although constituting only 14% of the population as a whole. In terms of prison officers, the majority of the workforce is white; in public sector prisons in England and Wales in 2019, of those who declared their ethnicity,
93.1% of prison officers identified as white.

prisoner being searched
© Andy Aitchison


The key findings from this research were that prisoners from non-white backgrounds were less likely to say they are treated with respect by staff and that older prisoners of all ethnic backgrounds were more likely to say that they were treated with respect by staff. It is striking that only 62% of black or black British prisoners state that most staff treat them with respect within the under 21 and 21–29 years age cohorts (which is the lowest or equal lowest in both of these age cohorts) but for prisoners aged 70 years or over, this percentage is 94% (the highest within the 70 years or over age cohort). Only 62% of those from a Traveller community reported that most staff treat them with respect within the under 21 years age cohort (which is the lowest/equal lowest in this age cohort); for the 60–69 years age cohort, the percentage of Traveller prisoners reporting positive experiences of staff respect is 82%. This percentage decreases to 57% for those aged 70 years or over; however, there were only twelve prisoners within this cohort. The graphic below shows the breakdown by age and ethnicity.

The researchers acknowledge the limitations of this study, in particular that they only analysed responses to one question about respect and staff. Nevertheless, they have clearly identified the need for much more exploration of the critical issues of prisoner-prison officer relationships as well as the potential for the Inspectorate’s survey data to provide a rich vein of information for researchers in the future.


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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