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, an in-depth research report by the Zahid Mubarek Trust and the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

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 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.

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 Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to tackle discrimination in the justice system and an independent review on the treatment of black and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system, chaired by David Lammy MP, is due to report in the summer.

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."