Double Disdvantage

[In prison] for a white person it’s mental health and for a black person it's classed as anger management issues.

In 2017 The Lammy Review - an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system - published its findings.

The report found racial bias to be prevalent at every stage of the criminal justice system and that discrimination and a harmful impact continues after release. One finding showed that for every 100 white women handed a custodial sentence at Crown Court for drug offences, 227 black women were sentenced to custody. Key recommendation included exploring opportunities to have your criminal record 'sealed' upon seeking employment, establishing a representative judiciary and magistracy by 2025, and greater use of diversion from custody into rehabilitation programmes for low level offences.

As part of the Review Women in Prison in partnership with Agenda were asked to ensure the experiences of women were included and considered. We ran focus groups in prison and the community to hear the personal accounts of the court system, in prison and on release. The Review's Chair, David Lammy MP also met with a group attending our women's centre in London, The Beth Centre. We published these discussions and findings in our report Double Disadvantage.

Key quotes:

Most of the jury, not most, all of them were not of my ethnic background, all of them were white and they were all of old age, none of them were from my age group or one of them of my ethnic minority…..I think juries make up their mind from when they see you they have something in their thoughts already from when they clap eyes on you.

Mine [the Jury] was all white with one Asian man and when I spoke to my solicitor I said I thought it was supposed to be a different mix of cultures and background and my advice from my solicitor was that if I challenge it, it would come across as that I was racist, he said it would be another mark on your character so just don't say anything.

I was speaking to someone and I couldn’t speak any other language to this person other than Urdu so I was speaking in Urdu and an officer came to the phone and shouted, ‘speak in English’. And at the time the person was really, really ill as well so I had to put the phone down and explain to the officer that that person can’t speak English and the officer said I need to put in an application to security.

Key findings:

Our Report found that BAME women felt:
  • They were not treated fairly in court and were unjustly penalised by judges and juries, who they felt were often made up of white men.
  • They were not listened to or informed about court proceedings, e.g. only one woman out of 20 knew whether she had had a pre-sentence report or not.
  • They were discriminated against and experienced racism in prison from both staff and other prisoners.
  • The impact on families was far-reaching, with children often separated from their mothers.
  • Some women were ostracised by their communities after being sent to prison.

Women are more likely than men to be remanded and then not receive a custodial sentence.

Evidence suggests BAME women face further discrimination, with black women much more likely than white women to be given custodial sentences for the same offences.

BAME women face a double disadvantage; discriminated against because of both their gender and ethnicity. Sexism, racism or unconscious bias should have no part in the criminal justice system. That is why it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure fairness throughout the process.

— Author of the report Katharine Sacks-Jones

The troubling accounts of discrimination and injustice of the women who spoke out as part of this research are more evidence of a completely broken system. The answer to the crisis in women’s prisons lies not in building more prisons, but in making sure effective community alternatives like women’s centres are in place. This is how women can address the multiple disadvantages that often bring them to the criminal justice system, cutting reoffending rates and helping to bring the women’s prison population down.

— WIP's CEO Kate Paradine