The experiences of black prison staff

This blog is part of a series from Hindpal Singh Bhui, lead inspector for the thematic review into the experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff.

‘I am not a prisoner but not quite on the same level as the rest of the prison officers.’

‘We always had that stigma… black officers they can’t do shit… why are there no black officers in security… no one could answer that question… are we gonna let them out the gate or something?’

One of the great privileges of working on Thematic review: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff was having the chance to listen to people sharing their thoughts about issues that had such deep personal meaning for them. In some ways, the interviews with black staff were the most affecting because they were often more isolated from their peers than prisoners, and few had felt able to talk openly in other forums. Two of these interviews, with prison staff at different ends of their careers, have stayed with me.

The first was with a young black officer who had joined the prison service as an academically successful and enthusiastic recruit, keen to become a future leader. Now, barely a year into his career, he described himself as traumatised by his experiences and planning a route out of the service. His decision had nothing to do with prisoners – it was upsetting to hear his absolute conviction that white colleagues considered him ‘inferior’. He described being ignored, slighted and undermined by the people who should have been supporting him. He was starting to make sense of his feelings by reading about the history and impact of racism and had taken solace from his growing appreciation of others’ experiences. He was also relieved that a black manager had recently started working on his wing, because he felt that other staff were now more careful about their behaviour towards him. But the lost potential represented by this young man feels like a shameful indictment.

How could things have been different? First, while he received some valued support from mentors, this was not enough on its own. It was useful to help him cope with the situation, but the behaviour of others also needed to be addressed. White staff could have been sensitised to the impact of what they may have seen as small comments or jokes, but which were received by this officer multiple times and from different colleagues. Each one cut a little deeper, reminding him of his outsider status and chipping away at his sense of belonging, his personal and professional confidence. The destructive racism in this case was not the result of bigoted staff setting out to harass a young black officer. But the effect was no less powerful.

The second interview was with a senior manager with more than 30 years’ experience. He was thoughtful and considered about the things that he had experienced – and exhausted. He said he had grown up with ‘in your face’ racism in the 1970s and felt that while things had improved, today’s less overt racism was in some ways harder to deal with as it was more difficult to identify and led to confusion and self-questioning. Despite his seniority to the young officer, he described a similar sense of being undermined, and was always worried about how he interacted with black prisoners because colleagues had previously reported his friendly interactions with them as suspicious. He said he had worked hard to battle discrimination throughout his career, but felt his race was run and that people coming after him would need to take up the mantel. As with the other interview, the atmosphere was charged with the emotion that comes with painful memories being relived. It was clear that the challenge for both men was ongoing, as they felt they had to stay constantly vigilant to protect themselves from further emotional harm.

Across our interviews, we heard a few shocking examples of overt racist language and behaviour, but insidious discrimination, characterised by subtle undermining and erosion of confidence, was far more pervasive. Comments were just ambivalent enough to be defended as general banter if challenged, leaving black staff questioning themselves about whether they were overreacting. There were many white staff who did not empathise with or understand the perspectives of black staff, and who felt that they were themselves victimised by false allegations of racism. From this defensive posture, most white staff did not even accept the possibility that they might be responsible for the racism that black prisoners and black staff were reporting. They had little understanding of the subtle nature of this racism.

The proposals in our report focus on allowing people to meet and talk together in forums or situations where they can get to know each other, and safely question and push each other to think and act differently. Identified racism should of course be dealt with very robustly, but our evidence is that today’s prison racism is rarely easy to pin down conclusively, and needs a sophisticated, multi-layered response.

Read the report: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff