Minister orders inquiry into racism at prison

Race issues in the UK: special report

Vikram Dodd: Guardian, Friday March 17, 2000

A home office minister yesterday ordered an inquiry into a top security prison after evidence emerged of racism among prison officers.

The prisons minister, Paul Boateng, demanded the investigation after being shown copies of racist remarks officers had written down at Full Sutton prison near York.

Last night a Labour MP called for the suspension of Martin Narey, the director general of the prison service, who had personally decided not to suspend the officers but sent them on a training course instead.

Mr Boateng was said to be shocked by the evidence, seen by the Guardian, which came in a log of phone conversations made by an Asian inmate which was kept by two prison officers.

One remark said that the prisoner "talks in Paki". The investigation will come as yet another embarrassment for the prison service, after allegations of racism against inmates at Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth, in London.

The prison service said the two officers had admitted writing the remarks after an earlier short informal inquiry. But Mr Narey had decided the incident was not serious enough to warrant suspension.

John McDonnell, the Labour MP, who showed Mr Boateng the dossier, said: "It's unbelievable. If the use of racist language is not sufficiently serious for Mr Narey to determine that these staff should be suspended, I shall be calling on the home secretary to suspend him."

Full Sutton is the jail where Satpal Ram is being held. He claims to have suffered racism from officers during his 13-year imprisonment for murder.

He claims he was defending himself against a racist attack, and Ram's supporters last night said the dossier supported his claims of prison racism.

The officers are identifiable because their signatures are by their comments.

They also wrote "foreign crap, well dodgy", "foreign lingo, can't comprehend" and "talking in foreign lingo".

The prison service said that Mr Boateng had asked Mr Narey for the "immediate" inquiry, which would be carried out by a governor from another prison.

"The prison officers involved fully accept that the language they used was unacceptable and unprofessional. Since these comments were written the officers have attended race relations training.

"The director general has personally reviewed the case and does not consider suspensions are necessary.

"Sending them on compulsory race awareness training was sufficient, he felt."

Mr Boateng yesterday met supporters of Satpal Ram. When shown the dossier Mr Boateng stopped the meeting and left the room for five minutes, and announced the investigation on his return.

Mr McDonnell, also present at the meeting, demanded that the two officers be suspended pending the fresh inquiry. "This is evidence of racist attitudes if not racist behaviour, among people supposed to be trained not to be racist in their treatment of prisoners."

The prison service said that all its officers attended half a day's race training on joining, with another refresher course after three years.

Extra training was given to specialist teams.

Mr McDonnell said the dossier showed that the training was not enough.

"The training system needs reviewing as does the assessment of officers after they finish training."