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The ethnic identity parade behind bars

An examination of how prisoners from different ethnic and religious backgrounds interact

The shocking racist murder of 19-year-old Zahid Mubarek in a young offenders' institution in 2000 caused a political storm and prompted a public inquiry. Among other things, it asked why staff had put Zahid in a cell with a man known to be a violently racist psychopath. 

But as searching questions were asked of the prison service and its processes, sociologists began to pose a different set of questions. In the UK's ethnically-mixed prisons, they wanted to know, to what extent do race, ethnicity and prisoners' views of them determine their lives 'inside'? Does a strongly-held ethnic identity help lighten the ordeal of imprisonment? Do prisoners tend to mix only with people from the same ethnic background? Or are factors like age, masculinity, religion and nationality more significant in forming groups and hierarchies? 

This was the background to a study by LSE's Dr Coretta Phillips which took her (and Open University colleague Rod Earle) into an adult prison and a young offender's institution, to meet and observe inmates at work, play, exercise and during visiting times. 

They conducted more than 50 interviews in each institution – Maidstone prison and Rochester young offenders' institution - with people from various ethnic, national and religious backgrounds.  

behind barsOn the surface, the findings showed a relaxed attitude to race: most prisoners saw ethnic diversity as a simple fact of their daily lives and many said they mixed with prisoners from different ethnic groups. The occasional act of racist behaviour was stamped out by prisoners themselves (sometimes violently) to general approval.  

And some prisoners felt pride in their cultural heritage and diversity. At Maidstone prison, this was particularly conspicuous in the prison's self-cooking area where Cypriot and Turkish men would gather to make yoghurt and cakes alongside Black British and Caribbean prisoners cooking rice and peas while African men served up groundnut stew next to White English inmates grilling bacon and frying eggs. 

As one prisoner put it: 'It's just an ethnic group innit like? Obviously I'm Muslim, you're Christian, it don't mean I can't be friends with you and I can't talk to you, that's it. It don't mean nothing. It just means that we believe in different things, innit.' 

Beneath the tolerant surface however, the researchers found that racism was still a lurking presence. Dr Phillips' final report found: 'White prisoners often reverted to narratives of white superiority to undermine and denigrate black prisoners…..with vehement resentment about the perceived overplaying of the "race card" by black prisoners. Muslim prisoners were held in particular disdain but also envied for their collective presence and solidarity.' 

At Rochester, one powerful group of black prisoners even suggested segregated landings into black and white areas. The idea was laughed off, but it revealed some of the underlying ethnic tensions.  

Unease and confusion about ethnic identity seemed particularly strong among white inmates  who were unsure about how to handle everyday contacts with black prisoners, fearing on the one hand that they might be labelled racist and, on the other, that their own rarely-asserted 'whiteness' could be ridiculed or treated with racial disdain. 

However the complex webs of identity and alliance among prisoners are by means all built along ethnic lines. Nationality, language, age, religion and masculinity were all factors which shaped each inmate's sense of belonging and being an outsider. 

And the research uncovered another group identity, which among younger prisoners was more powerful than ethnic belonging – which the researchers called 'postcode pride'. They found: 'Both white and minority ethnic prisoners revealed a strong investment in neighbourhood or estate-based identities with strong sentiments of territorialism…expressed as a way of anchoring belonging to somewhere external to the prison. Local affiliations created obligations among prisoners to support and assist in prison disputes involving fellow prisoners or even prison officers, including "backing them" in a "beef" [dispute].' 

These solidarities among people from the same neighbourhood often usurped or overlaid identities based on race and Dr Phillips suggests they can be understood as a way for young men to 'own' a place outside prison and give them a sense of security.  

This 'neighbourhood nationalism' may be a practical demonstration of multiculturalism in action, where ethnic tensions are replaced by new alliances and co-operations – based not on race but on place.


Useful links

Negotiating Identities: ethnicity and social relations in a young offenders' institution|, Theoretical Criminology (Sage)

For full details of Coretta Phillips' research and publications see her entry on LSE's Experts Directory: Dr Coretta Phillips|