“It is absolutely clear that black people are over-represented in prisons in England and Wales, and have been for more than 30 years” (Dr Elizabeth Henry)
In UK the proportion of black people incarcerated is currently seven times higher than the general population. Academics, faith practitioners, MoJ representatives, along with church and community leaders assembled in Prisons Week 2014 in Westminster to explore just why this was the case, and interrogate the issue in a way that could elicit a tangible response to what has been termed a social blasphemy. In its 2015 Black Church political manifesto, NCLF – A Black Christian Voice on behalf of Pentecostal and Black-led churches have made their views known that countering this injustice is a key priority for the church today.
The four speakers in Westminster addressed over-representations in quite distinct ways. Starting with an historical overview of black settlement in the UK, they moved through a statistical exploration of the various stages of the criminal justice system where black people experience worse outcomes, to a consideration of gender issues and church responses, and finally ending by examining those factors which may help black people who do end up in prison to have better chances of desisting from crime. A common message was heard that at every stage of the criminal justice process, more could be done to reduce rates of incarceration amongst black people.
Why is it accepted that black people
- continue to encounter disproportionately high levels of stop and search from the police,
- are more likely to end up in court on evidence that is later shown to be insubstantial,
- are more likely to receive a prison sentence for driving, public order, and drugs related offences,
- are more likely to have unsatisfactory pre-sentence reports,
- are more likely to have invalid sentence planning reports, and
- are more likely to be segregated, or subject to the use of force once in prison?
Reports have been made by and to Government, and initial progress is often made. It was heard that following the Brixton riots that reviews of stop and search procedures were required. After the murder of Zahid Mubarek in prison monitoring of outcomes by ethnicity in prison was introduced. Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence the spectre of institutional racism was countered through application of race impact assessments to all policies and procedures. However the good work begun in all these areas seems to have diminished or stalled, and has not realised the desired potential. Black people are still over-represented at all areas as subjects of the criminal justice system, and under-represented as employees of the system. Similarly, the intentions for effective community engagement found in the CPS’s Local Criminal Justice Boards, and the Police’s Strategic Community Partnerships are hindered by a failure to engage effectively with significant representation from the Black Churches.
These papers have been presented at what is a critical time for the Ministry of Justice, when the Transforming Rehabilitation programme is just about to swing into action. This initiative, which will see the responsibility for monitoring and resettlement of all but high risk offenders being carried out by private resettlement companies, has the opportunity to involve charity sector and faith groups at grass roots in changing outcomes for all offenders, and consequently for our society. The lessons that can be learned from all other areas of the Criminal Justice system are that if this area is not monitored and challenged to ensure proportional outcomes for black people, engaging and funding appropriately organisations who have experience in working with black offenders, it will become yet another area of the justice system where black people continue to see injustice.
African-American poet Paul Dunbar writes:
We wear the mask that grins and lies;
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
this debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile. (Dunbar, 1892: 167)
The gathering finished by considering these words, representing as they do the “deep psychic challenge that some black men face in a society where they feel that their sense of being and their abilities are undermined by racialised constructs” (Dr Martin Glynn). If we are to be a just society, we must strive to undo this deep wrong. As Christian people, we know that God will not “falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth” (Isa 42:4), and therefore neither should we. Justice that is fair, proportionate and equally applied for all.
We would like to thank all those who took part in the Symposium “Interrogating the over representation of black people in prison” at Westminster Central Hall, but especially our speakers (Papers are available for PDF Download),
Revd Dr Doreen Morrison (Chaplain, HMP Brinsford)
Resisitance is Futile: The mental enslavement of Caribbean Christianity and resistance by British Caribbean Youth.
Dr Elizabeth Henry, and Revd Martin Kettle (CofE Advisors on Minority Ethnic Affairs)
Interrogating the over-representation of black people in UK prisons
Revd Deseta Davis (Church of God of Prophecy)
The Over-representation of Black People in Prison
Dr Martin Glynn (University of Wolverhampton)
Black Men’s Desistance: The Racialisation of Crime/Criminal Justice Systems and its Impacts on the Desistance process for black men.
We call upon community, political and religious leaders to consider these observations and act accordingly.
This article was first published on Free Churches Group website.