UK inmates comfortable with diversity?

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Following recent media reports of racial strife and gangs in high security prisons in the UK, a new study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) paints a more encouraging - if sometimes contradictory - picture of multicultural prison life. Although tensions between ethnic groups and resentment of institutional race equality approaches are common, most prisoners appear to be comfortable with diversity.

'Ethnicity, Identity and Social Relations in Prison', carried out by Dr. Coretta Philips of the London School of Economics, explored how prisoners' ethnic identities helped them cope with prison life, and whether such identities informed a social pecking order and the formation of gangs. More specifically, it explored the influence of prison practices on prisoner and group identities.

In January 2009 British broadsheets voiced fears of a flourishing gang culture in UK top-security prisons following an inspection report on Long Lartin jail in Worcestershire. By contrast, the LSE research - comprising ethnographic studies conducted in Kent over eight months each at a young offenders' institution and an adult male prison - found that, superficially at least, there was an acceptance of diversity amongst prisoners, with some welcoming it.

There were no gangs in either institution, and no religious or ethnic pecking order. However, prisoners tended towards same-ethnicity friendships, and formed groups providing physical protection, for sharing, and for access to items such as mobile phones and drugs. Muslim groups - encompassing a range of ethnicities - were both envied by non-Muslims for their potential for seeking concessions on religious grounds, and disparaged for their solidarity.

Although racist undercurrents led to conflict and division, prisoners lived in harmony much of the time. Dr Philips commented: "We found that the younger prisoners tended to be more attached to their neighbourhood than to their ethnicity, with local allegiances giving them a sense of self and of belonging beyond the prison walls. Any negative views of ethnic groups were typically held by those from semi-rural neighbourhoods, whereas those from London neighbourhoods valued the diversity they found on their own patch."

"By contrast, older prisoners tended to see themselves more in paternal and family terms, and it was notable that amongst these prisoners the ability to resolve disputes without violence was valued."

Prisoners from all ethnicities had issues with institutional approaches, although for different reasons. Many minority ethnic, mainly black, prisoners felt they were treated more harshly by staff than white prisoners. By contrast, many white prisoners resented what they saw as the preferential treatment of minority ethnic prisoners who claimed racist treatment. They were themselves, often uncomfortable in encounters with black prisoners and were fearful of being called racist.

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Ethnicity, Identity and Social Relations in Prison', funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr. Coretta Philips of the London School of Economics. The research is part of an ESRC research programme at the Open University investigating emerging identity trends called Identities and Social Action
  2. 'Ethnicity, Identity and Social Relations in Prison' involved ethnographic studies of a young offenders' institution (HMYOI Rochester) and an adult male prison (HMP Maidstone) - selected for their ethnically, nationally and religiously diverse populations from both urban and semi-rural residential areas. Research methods involved interaction and observation of prison life, semi-structured interviews with individuals, and group interviews.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  4. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review.  The research has been graded as outstanding.