In this year’s edition of the Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, Beverley Thompson, a former race adviser to what was then the Prisons Board, described how leadership made a difference to the Prison Service’s performance on race in the first decade of this century. She questioned whether the same commitment exists now.

Concerned about leadership, I wrote to Jo Farrar, Chief Executive of HMPPS in October. Ian Blakeman, executive director for strategy, planning and performance, has responded.

As Ian’s letter explains, the prison service set up the Race Action Programme in December 2020 to develop plans to make the prison service more inclusive. Its scope included staff recruitment and training, the search for ways to facilitate discussions about race, and a renewed effort to work together with the third sector. The team also undertook responsibility for the implementation of the Lammy Review reforms. The Race Allyship charter, mentioned in Ian’s letter, has some potential to improve the working environment for prison staff. All of this is important work.

However, the response does not adequately address the questions in my letter.

I asked for three specific things:

  1. Publication of the HMPPS Race Action Programme;
  2. Measures of success; and
  3. A central register of equality assessments, and what difference they make.

All three are about accountability.

My first request—to publish the Race Action Programme—is about the leadership of HMPPS making a commitment to promote race equality against which the organisation is prepared to be judged. I would expect that to mean a programme plan, with clear projected outcomes, timelines, resources and an explicit structure of responsibilities.

The prison service response does not offer to be held accountable in this way, and there doesn’t seem to be a programme plan. In its place, there is the promise of a new edition of a ‘Race Action Booklet’,

This was the previous edition, and it’s light on both outcomes and the resources available to achieve them. It’s also very heavily weighted towards staff, as my letter pointed out. Publishing a booklet for staff, with an intranet page that only HMPPS staff can see, doesn’t suggest that the prison service is keen to hold itself accountable either to the people in its care—or to a wider world—about the difference its Race Action Programme is supposed to make to the discriminatory treatment of prisoners.

There’s better news on the second request. There are clear programme plans and deliverables in preparation, apparently, and an evaluation planned. We may see more by way of evidence and data in the next edition of the staff booklet. But there’s no indication of what those deliverables are, who is conducting the evaluation, or whether any of the outcomes will be made public. And there’s no sign that there’s a baseline measure of the discrimination that prisoners currently experience against which to measure the programme’s impact. What we have been shown so far does not appear to offer any remedies for the disproportionate outcomes currently experienced by BAME prisoners, which include categorisation, the use of force and of PAVA, segregation, the basic regime, and being adjudicated against.

Put bluntly, changing the experience of HMPPS staff is an important and worthwhile objective for HMPPS as an employer, but the prison service stands or falls by its treatment of prisoners. The pass or fail test for a Race Action Programme must be about that end product.

Accountability for race equality also depends on properly conducted equality impact analyses, which are rigorous in identifying the potential for discrimination and which prompt remedies where they are required.

My third request—for a central register of those analyses and whether they make a difference—is carefully skirted around. A revised policy framework on equality assessments doesn’t provide much comfort if nobody in HMPPS thinks it’s important to know what assessments have been carried out and whether anyone takes any action in response to them. We’ve seen the government routinely produce equality assessments that identify the likelihood that discrimination is a probable outcome of a policy proposal, but press on regardless. But whether that’s a general problem is anyone’s guess, because there’s no central catalogue of the assessments and no mechanism for finding out if anything ever changes because of them.

Throughout the letter, we are asked to be reassured by the existence of the External Advice and Scrutiny Panel, on which a PRT colleague sits. But it’s not a coincidence that we’re so worried about the lack of transparency and focus on prisoner outcomes. This is the panel that had to insist on a public retraction of a government statement that it was content with the safeguards around the rollout of PAVA spray, when exactly the reverse was true.

My letter to Jo Farrar was not about the dedicated team within HMPPS charged with this work. We know good people are working hard. It was about leadership. We realise there are massive competing priorities, and we know that the political climate on race is not supportive. But being black or mixed race in prison makes it more likely that you will get a rough deal on many of the day-to-day things that determine your quality of life. As David Lammy’s report showed, multiple inequities in the system that eventually sends people to prison produce a disproportionate population of people inside who are not white. But his report also showed that prisons compound that unfairness when they actually have an opportunity to stand apart from it

Setting up something called a Race Action Programme is absolutely the right response to the challenge the prison service faces, but HMPPS must be willing to be held to account by those with most to win or lose. It’s time to let some light in.

Peter Dawson