With recent reports showing that half of young prison inmates are from a black and minority ethnic background, Basit Mahmood argues that it’s time for a new approach other than criminalisation without addressing underlying causes


A report cited by the Voice newspaper in 2011 revealed that black boys made up 40% of the prison population, with the number of black and ethnic minority men in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) reported to have risen from 23% in 2006 to 39% in 2010. The same report also noted the increase in the proportion of young Muslims being incarcerated. Outcomes for BME boys have got a lot worse in the years since.

Yesterday the Guardian reported that ‘More than half of the inmates held in prisons for young people in England and Wales are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, the highest proportion on record. 51% of boys in young offender institutions, identified as being from a BME background, whilst 42% of children in secure training centres (STCs) – prisons for children up to the age of 17 – were also from a BME background.’

It’s about time we recognised that the relationship between race and incarceration isn’t just an American problem. The disproportionate numbers confirm that criminality and deviance are racialised.

Imprisonment has become the first response to many of the social problems that lead to people finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. We know for example that 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate and many go on to re offend. Nevertheless there is a lack of will by Her Majesty’s government to invest in better  education opportunities for prisoners i.e a long term solution

Issues such as homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, and mental illness affect BME populations disproportionately. 46% of Muslims live in the 10 most deprived local authority districts in England. The link between poverty and violent crime is a well established one. This isn’t a cultural problem, it’s a socio economic one. And when austerity and cuts take place, they fall on people of colour disproportionately, making matters worse.

The end result; vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities ending up in prison doesn’t resolve these problems, but instead ends up hiding the problems from public view.

The automatic attribution of guilt to people of colour, whereby BME youth are portrayed as the purveyors of crime has a knock-on effect on the legal system. An example of this is the controversial joint enterprise law, whereby any number of people can be prosecuted collectively for an offence committed by only one person if it can be proven that the participants were working together in some way.

All that is required to be convicted of a crime in some instances is that a defendant is merely acquainted with the guilty party. The manner in which joint enterprise had been interpreted had resulted in an alarming number of convictions of BME prisoners.The Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University found that Black/Black British people are disproportionately represented in the statistics of those in prison for joint enterprise offences – at 37.2%, despite being only 3.3% of the British population. Mixed race prisoners were also considerably over-represented.

In 2016 the Supreme Court judges unanimously agreed in a landmark ruling that joint enterprise had been ‘wrongly interpreted’ for more than 30 years because knowledge of a crime was being treated as a punishable crime in itself. The court ruled that intent must also be proven and that foresight on its own is not enough to get a conviction.

Legal experts came to believe there was the potential for thousands of appeals from prisoners convicted under joint enterprise, especially those from BME communities, who are all too easily typecast as gang members, a key factor contributing to convictions under joint enterprise.

Patrick Williams, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, whose area of interest includes young, black males and the criminal justice system, and who has conducted research for the JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association) has highlighted how the joint enterprise law was being used as a vacuum to ‘hoover up’ children from black and ethnic minority communities.

When surveillance is focused on communities of color, immigrants, the unemployed, the undereducated, the homeless, and in general on those who have a diminishing claim to social resources, it leads to inequality of outcomes in the criminal justice system.

It’s about time we address the underlying causes that give rise to the disproportionate number of boys and men from prisons ending up behind bars.

Prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. Locking up large numbers of young boys from BME backgrounds is not a solution to many of the structural inequalities and social problems that make some more likely to end up behind bars just because of their background. As Paul Lawrence of 100 Black Men of London; a  community based charity delivering programmes and activities focused on Mentoring, Education, Economic Empowerment and Health & Wellness said, “LBC is asking why more than 50% of young offenders are black boys. Have they ever asked why 54% of black male graduates are unemployed?”

Basit Mahmood is a freelance journalist and columnist for Media Diversified

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