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Features

Behind closed doors: racism in prisons and detention centres

(CARF 56, June / July 2000)

While the existence of institutional racism may have been accepted theoretically by the authorities in the criminal justice system, those individuals who choose to stand up to daily racism, in either prisons, detention centres or asylum hostels do so at the risk of even more serious maltreatment. That was the picture which emerged at a public meeting organised by the National Civil Rights Movement in London on 1 June.

Civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce spoke of the unquantifiable, everyday nature of racism within prisons, where, on every issue – whether it be privacy, visiting hours, religious practice, clothing regulations – black prisoners, refugees or anyone perceived as different, receive lesser treatment. Most of this daily racism is just endured. Those who fight it – such as Satpal Ram and Biba Sarkaria, both of whom are too brave and too honest to do otherwise – find that their time in prison is made that much worse. Satpal, who was not only put in prison because of racism but is also being kept in prison because of racism, has been moved over fifty times between different prisons as a result of his protests. Biba has for years campaigned for Asian women’s rights from inside prisons and has been singled out and segregated by the authorities as a result. Perhaps the greatest frustration for many prisoners is that there is no effective way of making your voice heard within the system.

Satpal Ram
Satpal Ram – victim of prison racism

Daniel Machover, who represents a number of the prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs prison where allegations of serious racist brutality came to light last year, spoke of further investigations at Wandsworth, Belmarsh and Portland Young Offenders Institute. Imran Khan spoke of black people dying in prisons with an unnerving regularity and the failure to investigate these cases seriously. He called for a public inquiry into racism in prisons and detention centres, hoping that the death of Zahid Mubarek could, at least, serve as a catalyst for change in the same way that Stephen Lawrence’s had.

Private prisons for the innocent
Hussein Kasujja, an asylum-seeker from Uganda, described his appalling treatment in detention. In 1998 he was asked to attend an immigration interview at Heathrow Airport, from where he was then taken in a Group 4 van to Harmondsworth detention centre and later to Tinsley House, near Gatwick. During the seventeen months in which he was detained he was refused bail applications and given no explanation as to why he was being held. As he became – understandably – increasingly frustrated, he was diagnosed as mentally ill by a psychiatrist and prescribed high dosages of anti-depressants. Luckily he found outside support. Many others, though, are not so lucky and an entire wing at Rochester detention centre is currently being used to house asylum-seekers diagnosed with mental health problems.

Government’s dispersal disgrace
The same lack of respect for basic rights is common to those in prisons, detention centres and asylum hostels. Speakers from the Iraqi and Iranian Federations of Refugees spoke of conditions at Angel Heights hostel in Newcastle. Asylum-seekers who have been dispersed there from Kent are unable to register with a GP, meet with legal representatives or have interpreters. Food and clothing are inadequate. They are forbidden from using a swimming pool next to the hostel during normal hours and are made to attend at specially allocated times.Within the hostel, the management enter rooms at any time and confiscate possessions. As with those in prisons, protest against these conditions is a risky business, leading, in the case of the Angel Heights Seven, to arrest.


‘The situation at Angel Heights is not unique. Go and see London Park Hostel in Elephant and Castle. 400–500 asylum seekers are just dumped there. It is like a concentration camp. Go to Birmingham, Manchester, Coventry or Sheffield – the same situation applies. The political establishment has taken away the basic human rights of a whole section of society.’
Fariborz Poya, Federation of Iranian Refugees

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