The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff

Date of publication
13 December 2022
Report type
Thematic reports and research
England and Wales

This thematic review explores the experiences of prisoners who identify as black men and what can be done to create opportunities for respectful communication and mutual understanding between black prisoners and staff.

Read the report: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff (837 kB)

Watch the launch event:

We interviewed 100 black prisoners, 17 key managers (including governing governors), and 66 other staff of all ethnicities. We found that that divisions between black prisoners and white prison staff were entrenched throughout the prison service, and black prison staff reported very negative experiences at work. Fundamental to these divisions were a lack of trust and communication. While inspectors found evidence of overt racism, both black prisoners and staff told us that subtle and insidious racism affected them more and that this was widespread and persistent.

This report offers practical solutions which build on practices that already exist within prisons and immigration detention facilities. These include cooking and eating together and reverse mentoring.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, said:

“Our report proposes a number of solutions developed in discussion with both black prisoners and prison staff that focus on creating opportunities for respectful communication and the development of mutual understanding. These should not be seen as a replacement for existing processes to identify and tackle unacceptable behaviour. But we believe they have the potential to be transformative if the prison service is prepared to take them seriously.”

What did black prisoners tell us?

They described persistent race discrimination as well as mistrust and unease in their relationships with white staff. They told us that staff often associated them with gangs.

Open to read quotes.

‘You see black people in general… we’re talking to each other, we’re bantering, we’re all loud… these people over here, they’re not used to that… they’re saying “oh my god, this is a ‘gang’, what is going on”… they’re thinking these guys are bullies. But they don’t understand that’s just us being us, that’s just how we grew up, that’s how our aunties are, that’s how our mums are, that’s how our dads are.’ (Black prisoner group)

‘They say you guys are a little gang innit? But we are surrounded by you guys, staff are mainly white, guys around us are mainly white and you don’t target them. There is 30 of them all standing together, they are friends on the outside that is a real gang. But you don’t target them. The only thing we’ve got in common is our colour.’ (Black prisoner)

They felt that staff had gaps in their knowledge and understanding that were filled with stereotypes.

Open to read quote.

‘… first and foremost we’re not asking you to be friends with us but have some knowledge, have some insight into our culture.’ (Black prisoner)

They valued genuineness and professionalism from staff, and this cut across ethnic barriers.

Open to read quote.

‘If somebody takes time out of their day to ask how your day is going, and ask how you are, and if you’re ok, with the situation I find myself in. I feel like that goes a long way.’ (Black prisoner)

What did black staff say?

Many described experiencing high levels of stress at work and discrimination that hindered their career progression. They were worried about being viewed by colleagues with the same suspicion that affected black prisoners and being accused of collusion or corruption.

Open to read quotes.

‘… I walked in, sat at the back, a CM said “what are you doing here?” I said, “It’s a Let’s Talk meeting”, he said “Yeah, yeah, but you’re not supposed to be here”. “Why can’t I be here?” “Because we want the staff to be able to talk freely”. I said, “They can talk freely”. He said “No, no, no, you can’t be here”. I said I’d just sit at the back of the chapel, I’ll not be included… he said “No you can’t be there, just get out…”’ (A black staff member describes being excluded from a discussion group by white staff )

‘… my first thought [i.e. about how to make progress] is I want my employer to create a safe space for me to work in.’ (Black senior manager)

What did white staff report?

Most white prison staff we spoke to did not recognise these findings and did not accept them. Many were adamant that they went out of their way to treat all prisoners fairly, and felt confused and frustrated that this went unrecognised. Many had not regularly interacted with black people before working in a prison, and wrongly assumed links between black prisoners and gangs or violence.  

Open to read quotes.

‘The whole thing frustrates and baffles me… there’s so much segregation between different groups and a lot of it I don’t get… you’re learning how to challenge somebody as an individual, not as a group.’ (Staff group)

‘… I will be honest… if somebody says to me [you’re racist] I’ll blow my stack… there’s no way I’m racist whatsoever… really irritating’. (Staff group)

‘They take over certain areas, don’t they, they’ve taken over, like, the smoking shelters and stuff like that… going in and playing dominoes… it just feels like they, you know, they don’t welcome anyone else in… you never see any white or Asian men playing with them.’ (Staff group)

There was wide support for forums to promote dialogue, as well as the role of cooking and eating together in helping to support mental health, improve relationships and support rehabilitation, particularly from senior managers.

Open to read quote.

‘How great would it be if… on a houseblock you’ve got a group of prisoners… different cultures… staff and the prisoners sit down together and eat.  It just breaks down barriers, doesn’t it?… I think it’s a really good concept.’ (Senior manager)

HMPPS response

HM Prison and Probation Service response to the thematic review (196 kB)