Racial Inequality in Prisons

Tap Social works with people in and recently released from prison to create training and employment opportunities, since having a job is proven to dramatically reduce rates of reoffending (by up to 67%)[1].   The state of the prisons in England and Wales is therefore an issue of great importance to us. 


Prisons are incredibly expensive, in both human and financial terms.  Scotland, England and Wales imprison at the highest rates in Western Europe and the lengths of prison sentences being handed out by the courts are dramatically increasing. Each prison place cost an average of £40,843 per year in 2017 (Ministry of Justice 2017) significantly higher than the average full-time salary in the UK.  Prisons are extremely ineffective at rehabilitation, with the reoffending rate at around 50% within one year for those released from prison, a figure which rises to over 75% for children who offend.  The annual cost of reoffending to the taxpayer is currently estimated to be in the region of £18 billion[2].


Given what has been said above about racial disparity in the earlier stages in the CJS it will come as no surprise to learn that BAME offenders are massively over-represented in our prisons.  Over a quarter (27%) of the prison population, 22,227 people, are from a minority ethnic group, compared with around 14% of the general population. The largest minority ethnic groups are Black or Black British, who make up 13% of the prison population compared with only 3% of the general population. The proportion of black children in prison is five time higher than the proportion of black children in the general population. Approximately 4% of people in prison said that they are Gypsy, Roma or Traveller, compared to an estimated 0.1% of the general population in England. Inspectors found that most prisons they visited were still not aware of their existence or needs[3].


If our prison population reflected the make-up of England and Wales, and assuming the white British prison population remained static, 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 £234 million a year[4]


Whilst only indirectly related to the issue of racial inequality, it is notable that the number of Muslim prisoners has more than doubled over the 16 years to 2018. In 2002 there were 5,502 Muslims in prison, by 2018 this had risen to 12,894. They now account for 16% of the prison population but just 5% of the general population (only 1% of these Muslim prisoners are serving sentences for terrorism offences).


In terms of racial justice within prisons themselves, according to a 2017 study[5], 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 reports (76%) of alleged discrimination by a prisoner were upheld.


At the time the Lammy Review reported, just 6% of prison officers come from BAME backgrounds compared with around 14% in the general population, and a prison population that is 26% BAME overall.  As the Lammy review made clear “this only serves to accentuate the divide between those who enforce the rules and those who must comply with them.” In common with the Lammy Review we call for a dedicated effort to increase the representation of BAME people amongst prison staff, especially those in senior roles and those tasked with ruling on complaints and other adjudications regarding e.g. the justifiability of the use of force by prison officers.


Given the massive over-representation of BAME people in prisons (as a result of racial disparities ‘upstream’ in the Criminal Justice System) any reforms which can effectively break the cycle of reoffending and prevent offenders from returning to court or to prison will not only save money and prevent human misery but will also advance the cause of racial equality.  We hope that the work which we do at Tap Social contributes in some small way towards this goal.  Without a doubt, a reduction in the use of imprisonment as a response to offending, and a reversal of the current trend towards ever-longer prison sentences, would also be highly desirable in reducing racial inequality in the Criminal Justice System.  Failing either of these things, dedicated efforts to invest meaningfully in effective rehabilitation programmes and policies would also help to mitigate the entrenchment of racial disparities.  To this end, we recommend, in common with the Lammy Review, reforms to make it easier for ex-offenders to return to the workforce.  Under the current system criminal offences remain on offenders records for years and in many cases for a lifetime before becoming ‘spent’ (at which point it is no longer mandatory to disclose them in most situations). 


Most employers will ask about even spent convictions, and will refuse to employ those who disclose them, as well as refusing to recruit (and firing) those who exercise their rights not to disclose spent convictions, should such convictions subsequently come to light.  Surveys show that only 17% of people are in PAYE employment a year after leaving prison and half of respondents to a 2016 YouGov survey said that they would not consider employing an offender or ex-offender.


When getting and keeping a job can be such a key element of an ex-offender’s sense of self-worth and the exercise of rebuilding confidence after prison (such that this sole factor can reduce re-offending by upto 67%)  it is self-defeating that we make it so difficult for those who have served their debt to society to rejoin it as a productive participant. 


Our experiences and those of the people we have worked with to date at Tap Social also suggest to us that the system of release on temporary licence (ROTL – or day release) which allows a very small and carefully risk-assessed proportion of the prison population to leave the prison during the day, to attend work, training and to visit family, is an incredibly powerful tool for rehabilitation.  Many of those who have joined our team and some of those who are still members of it first joined us on ROTL whilst serving their sentences in a local open (low-security) prison.  The statistics bear out our experiences: In 2018, 99.9% of cases ROTL was completed successfully.  In 2017, there were just 11 failures as a result of alleged further offending out of more than 350,000 instances of ROTL.  However, at present only the very lowest security classification of prisons – category D prisons – regularly make use of ROTL to allow prisoners to work towards the end of their prison sentence.  Sadly, at present, only a small fraction of the total prison population are in open conditions (the vast majority of prisoners, and all those who serve shorter sentences, never get this opportunity) and only a sub-set of those prisoners who do get to open prison have regular access to ROTL.  During the current public health crisis all prison visits and ROTL licences were suspended and in many prisons this remains the case.


We will lobby government to re-start ROTL as soon as possible where it has been suspended, and significantly increase its use in future, either by encouraging governors of higher security prisons (e.g. category C closed prisons) to make use of ROTL or by increasing the proportion of the prison population who are housed in open (category D) conditions.


To return to the issue at hand, the result of greater investment in pro-rehabilitation policies like these will not only be to reduce the financial and human cost of reoffending, but also reduce the racial disparities which currently blight our CJS.


[1] https://cleansheet.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Clean-Sheet-Annual-Report.pdf; Chant, J. Lockhart, G. Ullman, B. (2008) You’re Hired!  Encouraging the Employment of Ex-offenders. Policy Exchange Research https://www.policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/youre-hired-sep-08.pdf;

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/814650/economic-social-costs-reoffending.pdf.

[3] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2018)

[4] Prison Reform Trust (2019).

[5] Edgar, K. and Tsintsadze, K. (2017) Tackling discrimination in prisons: still not a fair response, London: Prison Reform Trust