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Collaborating with people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in prison: COVID-19 & beyond

By Hannah Wade, Development Manager, Belong: Making Justice Happen

Part way through the first lockdown, news emerged about people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds being more vulnerable to COVID-19. This coincided with the tragic killing of George Floyd in the US. Subsequently, there was a significant rise in anti-racism movements and global Black Lives Matter rallies and demonstrations. At this highly emotive time, our staff team became increasingly aware of the experiences of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in prison and sought to learn more about their current thoughts and feelings, about the support they needed, and the role we could play as an organisation.

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From initial conversations, it was clear that many people in prison were devastated by the killing of George Floyd; concerned about the news emerging that COVID-19 was disproportionately impacting people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds; some were impacted by their own experiences of grief and losing loved ones to COVID-19, but many were inspired, hopeful and motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum across the world. People in prison wanted to talk, debate and explore these events, but with COVID-19 restrictions in place, there was little opportunity to do so.

Via a Clinks/HMPPS Coronavirus response grant, Belong launched a consultation and provided a safe space for people in prison to explore their feelings around current events and to discuss what they need to move forward. The consultation also aimed to explore people in prison’s ideas for positive change and how Belong and other organisations in the criminal justice system can collaborate with them to achieve those aims. Here are some of the findings:

COVID-19 in custody

Nearly all participants (97%) indicated that they had significantly felt the impact of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown and restrictions in prison. The closing of social visits and isolation from friends and family was particularly challenging. Participants expressed feelings of confusion and stated that they would have benefitted from additional information and more accessible explanations to better understand what had been happening. Some shared fears and worries for their families out in the community and some shared news of bereavements they had experienced. Others highlighted the impact of the prolonged lockdown on their physical and mental health. While some shared positive coping strategies, others reflected the harsh reality of how difficult it has been.

‘In prison you don’t get things explained to you, you have to get it from the news so my experience has just been lockdown in my cell, no contact with family and not much information.’

The killing of George Floyd

We asked participants to share their thoughts on the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent anti-racism protests across the globe. They said:

‘I felt like crying and was very upset. That could have been my brother who was killed like that….’

‘It was dread. I watched the video and wondered why no one did anything who was nearby. The policeman looked comfortable with what he was doing…’

Around seven in ten (69%) said they would have liked to respond or show solidarity in some way, but only 9% were able to do so. These responses included one participant creating a personal tribute to George Floyd to add to his wall, another giving a talk on Black Lives Matter in the prison chapel, and another staging a peaceful protest on the exercise yard.

Moving Forward

When we asked participants to share their thoughts, feelings and ideas about the future, many felt initially hopeless about things ever changing. However, participants also expressed a motivation to be involved in change and some hope for the future. The overwhelming finding from the first round of consultations was that people were grateful for a place to talk about their experiences and felt that there was very little other opportunity to do so. Participants spoke about wanting more one-to-one spaces to reflect with peers or professionals, as well as to speak with others who shared similar lived experiences, thoughts and feelings. Many expressed that their lived experiences and learning could be useful to others, and there was a strong sense of wanting to create connections and effect change. Responses highlighted a great need for marginalised voices to be heard and responded to.

‘People need to stop generalising other people because of their differences – and we need to get closer to each other whereas we are encouraged to keep away from each other.’

Participants also suggested a number of improvements to the prison environment. For example, more equality in job opportunities in custody; improvements in the formal complaints system, and access to affordable Afro-Caribbean hair products. Participants also highlighted a need for more positive role models to come into prisons, and suggested community figures who also supported the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racism.

These consultations are the start of a vital, longer-term project. How we react as a sector to the findings of this report and to the many others that are emerging is central to the legacy of the past year. If we let #BlackLivesMatter disappear with the pandemic, we are doing a disservice to George Floyd and the many other Black men and women who have experienced racism in the criminal justice system, and to the thousands of people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Backgrounds who have died from Coronavirus, many providing vital  frontline services.

We welcome your feedback, ideas and comments.

You can read the full report here.

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