The prison service has “regressed” in its efforts to tackle racial inequality, a leading expert on equality and diversity in the criminal justice system has warned.

Writing in the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile, Beverley Thompson OBE, a former senior civil servant and Race Equality Advisor (2004 – 2009) at HM Prison Service, says that “many in the prison service have either lost commitment and direction from their leadership or their organisational expertise and energy is depleted—seeking comfort instead from the dangerous mantra that ‘race has been done’.”

Over one quarter (27%) of people in prison are from a minority ethnic group despite making up 14% of the total population in England and Wales. If our prison population reflected the ethnic make-up of England and Wales, we would have over 9,000 fewer people in prison—the equivalent of 12 average-sized prisons. The economic cost of BAME over-representation in our prison system is estimated to be £234m a year. Black people are 53%, Asian 55%, and other ethnic minority groups 81% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when factoring in higher not-guilty plea rates. BAME people in prison often report more negatively about their experience in prison and relationships with staff.

In a specially commissioned piece for the Factfile, Ms Thompson charts the complex history of race relations in the prison service over the past two decades, from the murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham prison in 2000, which prompted a significant review of prison policy on race relations, through to the publication in 2017 of David Lammy’s seminal review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, BAME individuals in the criminal justice system.

Zahid Mubarek was a British Pakistani teenager who was murdered by his cellmate on 21 March 2000 at the Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in southwest London. His murder led to the establishment of an independent inquiry and an ambitious programme of work in prisons to tackle racial discrimination, culminating in the publication in 2008 of the prison service’s race review.

Ms Thompson compares efforts by the prison service to tackle racial inequality in the wake of the Mubarek murder with its current lack of focus on the issue. She highlights the case of Mohamed Sharif, a Muslim prisoner at HMP Bristol in 2014, who was left severely brain damaged following an attack by a white prisoner who had previously told staff he would “only share a cell with a white person who was not homosexual”. This case, she says, “shares striking similarities with the murder Zahid Mubarek.”

She concludes: “It is disheartening to see a service which demonstrated such maturity, vision, transparency and commitment to eradicating racism and discrimination, but which unfortunately appears to have regressed. It is only right that we ask, “if not now, when”.

In September 2017, David Lammy published his hard-hitting assessment of institutional racism within the criminal justice system. It uncovered disproportionality at every stage from prosecution through to sentencing and resettlement. The Ministry of Justice accepted all 35 Lammy recommendations and its fundamental challenge that government and criminal justice agencies must either explain the reasons for racial disparity in a particular situation and if it cannot do so, reform the system to eradicate racism.

In February 2020, the Ministry of Justice published an update on progress in implementing the Lammy recommendations. Although the update provides comprehensive details on what the government is doing on each of Lammy’s 35 recommendations, it does not include an assessment of the impact of any of this work.

For the Ministry of Justice’s efforts to tackle disproportionality to gain proper credibility, this will need to be rectified, especially since we know that, for instance, the proportion of our youth custody population who come from BAME backgrounds has actually increased since the Lammy report was published.

Furthermore, decisions such as that to roll out PAVA spray to all closed adult male prisons, despite clear evidence of the disproportionate impact of use of force on BAME prisoners, undermine the prison service’s commitment to addressing racial disparities.

In addition, proposals contained in the government’s sentencing white paper are likely to worsen disproportionate outcomes for BAME individuals. For instance, the Equality Statement acknowledges that the proposal to extend the automatic release point from half- to two-thirds of the sentence will have a disproportionate impact on, “Men, people with a Black or Black British ethnicity as well as younger adult offenders (aged 18-24) and offenders over the age of 50”. But it does not describe the impact on these individuals, nor explain the reasons for the disparities.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“There was a time when the Prison Service led the way in its practical actions to tackle race discrimination. Taking the long view, it is clear that other priorities have gradually taken over. But the problems have not gone away. Indeed, in some respects the government is about to make the situation worse, with harsh sentencing proposals which will disproportionately affect young black people. It is time the Prison Service put race equality back at the top of its agenda.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.