New report proposes creative solutions to improve the treatment of black prisoners and black staff

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

Divisions between black prisoners and white prison staff are entrenched throughout the prison service, and black prison staff report very negative experiences at work. But both of these problems could be tackled through taking a more creative approach focused on building mutual trust and respect. This is one of the key findings of ‘Thematic review: The experiences of adult black male prisoners and black prison staff’, published today.

Fundamental to the divisions that the report identified were a lack of trust and communication. This informed everything from the disproportionate use of force against black prisoners through to black prisoners’ concerns that they were less likely to be offered coveted jobs or education within prison, or enhanced regimes designed to incentivise good behaviour. Black prison staff also told us of a lack of career progression and feeling isolated from other staff.

While inspectors found evidence of some overt and explicit racism, both black prisoners and staff told us that subtle and insidious racism affected them more and that this was widespread and persistent. 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.

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.”

The solutions include cooking and eating together, an apparently simple activity that has deep cultural relevance and meaning. Black prisoners frequently told inspectors of the significance to them of preparing and sharing food. Several senior managers involved in the fieldwork also expressed support for the idea of prisoners and staff of all backgrounds being able to break bread together at times as a prison community.

Other pathways to improvement include ‘reverse mentoring’, whereby prisoners provide insights into their lives during private discussions with staff; joint prisoner and staff forums, and joint training and education.

All of the solutions were developed in discussion with black prisoners and prison staff, including both senior managers and frontline officers, and most build on practices that already exist within either prisons or immigration detention facilities that could be replicated more widely in this context.

Notes to editors

  1. Read the report, published on 13 December 2022. Please note that the report includes direct mentions of explicit racism that may be distressing.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. Fieldwork was conducted in seven establishments from October 2021 to December 2021. Fieldwork included interviews and focus group discussions with black prisoners, and interviews and focus groups with a range of staff, including black staff and senior managers in the establishment. Additional data was also collected from the seven prisons during the fieldwork.
  4. In total we spoke to: 100 black prisoners who were interviewed individually using semi-structured interviews (55) or in-group interviews (45); 27 black prison staff who took part in individual semi-structured interviews (17) or a group interview (10) (the former included three black prison governors and four Unlocked Graduates – see ‘Other contributors’, below – who were not based in our fieldwork prisons); 17 senior managers, including equality and diversity leads, governors and prison group directors (PGDs), who took part in semi-structured interviews; 39 prison staff who took part in focus group discussions.
  5. Cultural or global kitchens exist in some immigration removal centres, including one identified as an example of notable positive practice at Colnbrook IRC in July 2022. These allow detainees to prepare and share food of cultural significance to them.
  6. Please email if you would like more information.