In the UK, there is often a perception amongst the public that racism is not as prevalent an issue as it is in the US and that it is simply a case of a ‘few bad apples’. Yet, as Black Lives Matter protests have erupted across the globe following the murder of George Floyd in the US by Minneapolis police detective Derek Chauvin, the UK’s overt and covert racism has come to a head.
Systemic Racism in the UK
Systemic racism describes the way in which racism is rooted within the very structures of our society. It is evident throughout the foundations of our institutions; criminal justice, health care, employment, housing, income and education to name but a few.
Discrimination across these institutions – which play a significant role in informing the material, mental and physical conditions of our lives – is rife. Within the criminal justice system, this is an ever-growing issue, as police brutality and the criminalisation of Black communities has become almost synonymous with law enforcement, particularly within the US.
Yet the disproportionate criminalisation of Black people similarly occurs in the UK and is no less concerning than that which plagues the US. In fact, the Lammy review found that Black people in the UK are proportionally more likely to be in prison than those in the US. To fully understand the extent to which this operates and just how damaging this is to people of colour, we must look at the prison-industrial complex.
The Prison Industrial Complex
In the UK, racial disparity within prisons is alarming to say the least. Black people account for just 3% of the population yet make up 12% of people in prison and in 2014, they were almost three times more likely to be arrested than white people. What’s more, Black people are 53% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court, even when taking into account higher not-guilty plea rates.
The disproportionate criminalisation of Black people similarly occurs in the UK and is no less concerning than that which plagues the US
Police across Britain have been found to disproportionately target Black people and others of an ethnic minority background through exercising the likes of Section 60 Stop-and-Search powers. In fact, in 2011 alone, police were 28 times more likely to use these powers against Black people than white people and, regrettably, this isn’t a problem of the past. Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority groups were fined for alleged breaches of the lockdown in London while racial profiling is believed to have soared. We can see then just how overtly the criminal justice system criminalises people of colour.
Black people are 53% more likely to be sent to prison for an indictable offence at the Crown Court
This becomes increasingly harrowing when we take a look at the growing motives lurking behind incarceration. The corporatisation of prisons has long been a concern for activists across the political spectrum, with the UK government no longer even attempting to conceal its use of prisons as an economic tool.
On 28th June, the Ministry of Justice tweeted that it would be building four new prisons with its aims being to ‘help local economies’ and ‘support the construction industry’. The tweet understandably provoked widespread backlash with members of the public highlighting the sheer horror of using incarceration as a means of propping up the economy.
The UK now has the most privatised prison system in Europe, meaning private corporations continue to profit from the growing prison population in a myriad of ways; from electronic tagging to inmates paying to make phone calls to family and friends. Tech companies in particular have huge stakes in this as they invest to maintain the system at all costs. Similarly, the labour of prisoners is exploited to provide goods to private corporations at an extremely low cost.
Immigration Detention Centres
Not only is the prison industrial complex limited to prisons themselves, it has now seeped into the entire immigration system in the UK. Since the 1990s, immigration removal centres – or ‘detention centres’ – have rapidly increased and have become privatised at a dizzying rate.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of immigration detention in the UK is that there is no time limit as to how long an individual can be held. This comes as no surprise given the private interest in growing immigration detention; with more and more private companies providing services and facilities, it is critical that they uphold and develop this system.
Corporate Watch found that profit rates of 20% and above are common in the UK’s privately run detention centres. The more individuals held in detention, the greater these profits will inevitably be.
Again, this overlapping of private and public interest comes at the detriment of predominantly people of colour; it is a heavily racialised system.
Corporate Watch found that profit rates of 20% and above are common in the UK’s privately run detention centres
To tackle systemic racism, we must tackle both the UK’s prison industrial complex and the immigration detention system. When the caging of human beings is used to supplement economic growth, we as a society have failed drastically.
Holly Barrow is a political correspondent for London Immigration Lawyer, a UK-based organisation of immigration lawyers providing free legal advice to asylum seekers and victims of domestic abuse