Race Relations in Prison: Managing Performance and Developing Engagement

By Cowburn, Malcolm; Lavis, Victoria | British Journal of Community Justice, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Race Relations in Prison: Managing Performance and Developing Engagement


Cowburn, Malcolm, Lavis, Victoria, British Journal of Community Justice


Abstract

This paper explores the paradox that whilst the quantitative measures of prison performance in relation to 'race relations' indicate substantial improvements in service delivery, more qualitative measures of the quality of prison life appear to indicate little substantive improvement in race relations. Using the underrepresentation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) prisoners in accredited offending behaviour related prison programmes as a case study to explore understandings of race relations, the paper reflects on whether the under representation indicates the operation of racial discrimination by prison staff or a refusal to participate by prisoners. It also explores other explanations for this phenomenon relating to the enactment of positive ethnic identities and resistance to programmes that ignore such identities. The paper concludes by considering the challenge of developing an active prison culture that validates all ethnic identities in culturally appropriate ways.

Introduction

This paper has its origins in our attempts to understand and respond to the underrepresentation of BME sex offenders on the Prison Service of England and Wales' sex offender treatment programme (SOTP) (Cowburn and Lavis et al 2008a, 2008b). However, it is also influenced by our recent experience of undertaking research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council which sought to explore how issues of diversity within the prisoner population are responded to in HMP Wakefield1. In carrying out that research we became sensitised to the existence of parallel, yet often conflicting, 'stories' of prison performance. Such conflicts generate difficulties for researchers in accounting for practices, particularly where standardised [quantitative] measures of performance tell a different story than first hand observation and the told experience of staff and prisoners. This tension is consistent with Cheliotis and Liebling's (2006) argument that performance measures count but do not account for issues related to race relations in prison. Using the case study of accredited offending behaviour related programmes in prison we explore what inhibits and what facilitates the participation of Black and Minority Ethnic prisoners in prison life. These programmes are a key element in mapping prisoners' sentence plans and in preparing them for living without committing offences when released from prison; as such involvement with these programmes would appear to be essential for all prisoners. This paper highlights the evidence of ethnic minority non-participation in accredited offending behaviour programmes. It considers ways of understanding this phenomenon that includes theorising the development and enactment of positive identities.

In this paper we use the term 'BME' to refer to Black and Asian minority ethnic prisoners. This term is used in the Impact assessments of Prison functions in England and Wales (H. M. Prison Service, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c; 2008a, 2008b, 2008c). Aspinall (2002: 803-805) points to the limitations of what he calls 'pan-ethnic' terms. Moreover, the Prison Service recognises that the term has limited utility, particularly in distinguishing particular ethnic groups; thus from the second quarter of 2008 it introduced a new database (SMART II) which enables more sophisticated analysis of ethnic groupings (it uses six categories - Asian, Black, Mixed, Other, White British and White Other). Presumably future Impact assessments will reflect this complexity. However, the focus of this paper is 'race relations' which are largely predicated on skin colour rather than detailed ethnic differences, so the use of pan-ethnic terminology is appropriate. Where we use the terms "Black" and "White" to denote race (as defined only by skin colour) we use capital letters to denote the ideological constructs implicit in the terms, however where cited sources use the terms we reproduce the original typographic case.

The paper first outlines how performance in relation to 'race relations' is managed in the prisons of England and Wales. …

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