John Bowden reports on the endemic racism and violence which still permeates the UK prison system.
The disproportionate imprisoning of young black people has always been an inevitable result of a criminal justice system inbuilt at every level with racist attitudes and an antipathy towards the black working class community. The facts speak for themselves; whilst black people make up just 2 per cent of the total population in England and Wales, black inmates make up more than 14 per cent of the total prison population.
The Home Offices own statistics for Feb 2003 showed that 16 per cent of all male prisoners are black and 25 per cent of all female prisoners were from the black population. The reality of life inside prison for black inmates is a continuation of the racist treatment many of them have experienced at the hands of the police and courts, although in the hidden world of prison that treatment often takes on an especially vicious and brutal quality. Whilst most black prisoners experience some form of overt discrimination at the hands of an overwhelmingly white prison staff, the very worst treatment is reserved for those who possess the courage and determination to resist and openly complain about the racist behaviour of those managing and running the prisons. The experience of those black prisoners labelled "difficult" and "subversive" is truly horrendous and filled with frequent physical brutality, long stays in solitary confinement and endless transfers, usually to prisons geographically remote and inaccessible to friends and family. The situation of those black prisoners who confront the racism of their jailers is infinitely more life threatening than that experienced by any other group of prisoners and requires extraordinary courage and fortitude.
The predicament of Sean Higgins, a young mixed race prisoner from Birmingham, typifies the sort of treatment dished out to black prisoners perceived by staff as "uppity" and unreasonably proud, and also the collusion of senior prison management is the vicious repression of defiant black prisoners. In the Autumn of 2005 the anti-racist organisation Black Britain was contacted by a white ex-prisoner, John McGranagham, who told them that Sean Higgins, then in the punishment block at Frankland jail in Durham, was being brutalised by prison officers and feared for his life. Mr McGranagham said he believed that Sean's treatment was motivated by racism and asked Black Britain to begin asking questions of the prison department on Sean's behalf. After contacting Sean's lawyer, Vicky King, who confirmed that Sean had been frequently assaulted and injured by prison staff, Black Britain made contact with Sean himself who described a catalogue of abuse and maltreatment at the hands of racist prison staff, all of it is verified with medical reports and photographs and legal statements.
Sean said that in 1999 while in Swaleside Prison in Kent several officers entered his cell, subjected him to racist verbal abuse and then physically attacked him, during which they tried to tie a home made noose around his neck in a mock lynching fashion. He said "I was beaten to such an extent the police, when they eventually came, refused to accept custody of me, insisting I be taken to the hospital first". The attack on him at Swaleside was one of many and was always provoked by his personal complaints of staff racism and adamant refusal to be silent and acquiescent in the face of it.
In the notorious Full Sutton segregation unit, a place where violence against prisoners has become an integral part of the regime, he was badly beaten after complaining about racist abuse, and then charged with assaulting prison staff, who required a justification for "restraining" him so violently. He was subsequently acquitted at Hull Crown Court. The jury's verdict in the case supported Sean's defence that he had been the victim of racist and physical abuse at Full Sutton. They found that he had acted in lawful self-defence when attacked by prison staff. When Sean again complained of racist abuse whilst in the segregation-unit at Frankland jail in September 2005 he was systematically beaten up by staff, who then inevitably made a counter allegation that he had attacked them without the slightest provocation. Sean is now pursuing a civil action against the prison dept for damages. The treatment of Sean Higgins typifies the reaction of the prison system to black prisoners who defiantly resist racism behind bars and is indicative of a whole culture of racism that permeates the prison system from the top to bottom.
Solicitor Dan Rubenstein, whose firm specialises in prison litigation, has claimed that a strong culture of racism exists not just amongst basic grade prison officers but also within higher management of the prison dept. According to Mr Rubenstein the prison dept is notoriously slow in responding to letters detailing claims on behalf of prisoners. He says "They have never taken less than four months to respond". He describes follow up action by the system into complaints of racial discrimination as being "very patchy indeed", and believed that higher management have been directly involved in racially discriminatory actions. He also claims that black prisoners who have made complaints of racial discrimination were constantly transferred; he added: "instead of the grievance being dealt with there and then they just pass the ‘problem’ onto someone else".
Felix Martin, ex-prisoner and chair of the Prisoners Race Discrimination Unit, told Black Britain that although complaints of racist abuse in prison were high they were probably the tip of an iceberg and unreflective of the true number - "A lot of black prisoners don't bother to report it and just learn to live with it", he said. Mr Martin said that racism in prisons takes many forms and vary from being given small portions of food in the canteen to receiving a behaviour warning for pressing a cell buzzer to request a phone call. He said: "Some officers come out with racial insults and there are ones who really bully and pick on certain inmates. When a black prisoner decides to make a complaint that's when it turns into open warfare and the victimization comes pouring in".
The Commission For Racial Equality's 2003 report stated that: "Some prison staff discourage or prevent prisoners from making race complaints" and those who plucked up the courage to speak out against discrimination "were punished or victimised for making the complaint".
However, whilst many welcomed the CRE'S investigation there remains widespread criticism of the government's reluctance to instigate prosecutions against prison staff identified as perpetrators of racist behaviour. Following the publication of the of the CRE'S report, instead of seeking justice for black and ethnic minority prisoners who had been victims of racism within the prison system, the CRE joined forces with the government to implement an "action plan for reform", that includes a proposal to appoint prison officers as "mediators" of racial conflict in prison! Felix Martin said "This is a perfect way of ensuring that everything stays inside and nothing gets out. This proposal if implemented, will set the prison system back twenty years". Instead he recommends that prisons be "purged" of racism by legally empowering prisoners and making the system far more accountable. Another important way of challenging racism in prisons is to highlight and support the struggle of prisoners like Sean Higgins, who has remained isolated for years and able to call only on his own courage and endurance in his struggle against racist and violent prison officers tacitly backed up by the whole power structure of the prison system.
It took an ex-prisoner, John McGranagham, a man who spent over a decade in prison for crimes he did not commit*, to highlight the treatment of Sean Higgins and encourage others to get involved in supporting Sean. It is a political and personal duty of all genuine anti-racists to support those on the inside who are engaged in what is often a life and death struggle against vicious state racism of the worst kind.
*Mr McGranagham's life sentence conviction was quashed at the Court Of Appeal in October 1991 and is an accepted miscarriage of justice.
Anyone wishing to contact Black Britain can do so with the information below:
The Colorful Network
The Colorful Network, Culvert House, Culvet Road, London SW11 5AP, England
Tel: 020 7498 4020
Fax: 020 7498 5757
Email: [email protected]