It’s black – on the inside

Black young men are more likely to go to prison than university.
Last year there were more African-Caribbean entrants to prisons in
England and Wales (more than 11,500) than there were to UK
universities (about 8,000).1

So what is life like if you’re young, black and in prison? No bed
of roses, according to a string of reports published over the past
six months.

In December 2003, the Commission for Racial Equality found 14
separate areas in which the prison service had failed to eradicate
racism in prisons.2 In the same month, the Children’s
Society published disturbing research into the discrimination young
black men in custody experience.3

And last month, an independent study commissioned by the Youth
Justice Board found that young people from ethnic minorities were
significantly disadvantaged at various stages of their contact with
the criminal justice system.

When the government’s own youth justice body expresses concern that
young men of mixed parentage suffer a higher rate of prosecution
and conviction than their white counterparts, it is time to take
notice. The YJB’s Differences and Discrimination report
reveals that a young black male is nearly seven times more likely
to be sentenced in crown court to 12 months or longer in custody
than a white male with similar case characteristics; a greater
proportion of young black and Asian men are remanded into custody
before sentencing; and there is a greater proportion of young black
men remanded in custody who are not in the end convicted of any

The question of why such discrimination exists was apparently
beyond the scope of the study. However, unearthing the reasons for
blatantly racist practices would seem to be a matter demanding
urgent investigation followed by swift action.

In the meantime, the YJB has asked all youth offending teams to
audit their practice and report back. A step in the right direction
perhaps, but utterly irrelevant to the young black men interviewed
by David Wilson, author of the Children’s Society report, when he
tried to ascertain what level of racism they came across inside and
how they coped.

Obtaining access to interview young black people about their
experiences was a struggle, and despite obtaining official
permission to visit Feltham young offender institution (of
particular relevance after the murder of Zahid Mubarek by his
cellmate), access was denied by the prison itself.

“Every prison had handpicked the young men I was allowed to
interview,” says Wilson. “I’ve no doubt that the prison service
chose the institutions it did because they had been said to be OK
by the chief inspector of prisons. So I was surprised by what I
found the young men were saying to me.”

One inmate of a YOI in northern England said: “One of the officers
said to me, ‘You are a piece of shit. When I wipe my arse it looks
like you’.”

Another young man doing time in the south of England explained the
way that subtle racism shapes the environment in which black
inmates carry out their sentences. “What if it was all black govs
and all black lads on the servery? What if it was all black lads
that worked outside as orderlies and it was all the white lads that
were banged up? What if all the white lads kept getting stitched
up? Then they’d know how it felt, because that’s how it feels to

Few of the young black prisoners interviewed had heard of the race
relations liaison officer to whom complaints can be made and whose
responsibility it is to log all racial incidents.

“There was a parallel universe in existence,” says Wilson. “In the
official structure, there were race relations teams, mission
statements, targets. But the very people for whom that system was
created either had no idea it existed or had no trust in it.”

This is no surprise to Farida Anderson, chief executive of Partners
of Prisoners, a charity that works in YOIs with young black
prisoners both during and after their sentences to challenge racist
practices and improve relations between black prisoners and staff
(see below).

“It’s unfair to expect young people to use systems that were
designed by highly educated people,” she says. “The prison can say
that information about the race relations liaison officer and
complaints procedures are in the induction handbook, but it’s
boring – who reads that? It matters how information is delivered,
so we’ve said why not make videos or find another way these young
men can relate to.”

She says simply recruiting more ethnic minority staff to the
criminal justice system is not the whole solution. “It’s difficult
for ethnic minority staff to be confident operating in that
situation. What I say to them is, if you see things happening and
don’t speak up, how do you expect a 17-year-old to use your
complaints systems? If you’re young and in prison, you’re going to
be vulnerable because you don’t have the skills. If you’re young
and black, even more so.”

The YJB’s director of practice and performance, Chris Hume,
believes that more work must be done to offer a better service to
young black people before they get into trouble and after they are
released from custody.

He says: “Race awareness training has a role to play, but we think
equal value means identifying and sharing best practice. There can
be a paralysis on the part of practitioners on how to meet the
needs of ethnic minority young people – we need to ensure that
white staff feel skilled so that they can provide a service.”

Community Care‘s Back on Track campaign is calling
for a dramatic reduction in the number of young people held in
custody. See
for details.

1 Prison Service, Commission
for Racial Equality, Implementing Race Equality in
, 2004

2 Commission for Racial Equality, Racial Equality in
, 2003

3 Children’s Society, Playing the Game,

Good practice in Doncaster

Diane Curry, director of Partners of Prisoners, says: “We
started going into Moorland young offender institution in Doncaster
six years ago. The point of getting young black men together is to
sort out their day-to-day issues around race relations, because
their cultural needs generally don’t get met by the prison

“Young people do not complain – to them it’s a paper exercise. So
once a month for a whole day we meet up so that collectively they
can raise their voice about issues that are bothering them. It
means that nobody is seen as an individual ‘troublemaker’ because
often other young men will back them up and say they’ve experienced
something similar. So it’s a safe space to make your view

“We’re very focused on working with prison staff and the race
relations liaison officer is in meetings. You have to do a lot of
work beforehand with the staff; the environment has to be right and
you have to feel that the work is welcomed.

“There’s always a lot of cynicism to start with – you know, why do
black people have to meet as a group, why are they getting
something extra? The reason is that support structures for young
people in prison are minimal, but for young black people they are
even less. White people at least see that the management structures
are white, most prison staff are white. Young black people don’t
even see many black workers in the probation service.

“Overtly, racism isn’t there any longer. People still hold racist
views though, and transfer them into more covert situations. So I
hear young men say, ‘I’m being blocked through my sentence’ –
meaning that they can’t move as easily as white people into open
conditions. Or they’re targeted for drug testing. Or force is used
more often on them.”

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