If you are a Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME)* woman and you come into contact with the criminal justice system, you are more likely to be arrested, sent to prison, and to stay there longer than your white peers. This situation is by far the most acute for Black women: there are three times more Black women in prison than there should be according to their representation in the general population.
This is because, as confirmed by government reports, our criminal justice system is institutionally racist. It operates in a discriminatory manner against Black people and other individuals with ethnic minority backgrounds as a result of the prejudice embedded in its normal practice within society.
In the UK, criminal justice is one of the chief ways that inequality is upheld, and that includes racial disparity. Racism is unfortunately an inescapable part of the experience of Working Chance service users who come from BAME communities.
Racism is everywhere, but it is not always easy to prove. While we may be able to recognise and call out overt racism meted out by individuals, the way that institutional racism operates – through oppressive systems – is harder to combat.
So we must turn to the experts. People from racialised communities are authorities on the consequences of institutional racism and are finely attuned to the ways in which it leaves them at a disadvantage.
Working Chance spoke to women about their experiences of racism in the criminal justice system and while looking for employment. What was clear was that there are strong parallels between the two, and that the disproportionate chance of receiving a conviction or prison sentence compounds discrimination when looking for a job.
Despite your chances of going to court multiplying if you’re from a BAME background, the criminal justice system is overwhelmingly white. Figures show that just 7% of judges and 12% of magistrates are BAME. Only 1% of judges are Black. And your judge is much more likely to be a man than a woman – just 32% of judges in the courts are women. Jury verdicts, the only part of the system where there is seemingly no disparity on the basis of race, are under threat from calls to hold trials without juries to ease a backlog of cases that was huge even before the coronavirus crisis.
For Mandy, the court environment was an obvious detriment. ‘I’m mixed race Caribbean, and I don’t see myself represented anywhere in the criminal justice system. Racism is definitely a huge factor, the damage it’s caused me and my family is incredible.’ Her case, which involved unlawful proceedings by a trial judge who did not properly take her mental health condition into account, led to the removal of her daughter from her custody, something that she is sure wouldn’t have happened if she were white. ‘The judge in my case and every professional I’ve come into contact with has been white.’
Children from BAME backgrounds are hugely overrepresented in the care system, which could be down to the family court more often removing children from mothers of colour. Studies tell us that care orders, which give the local authority parental responsibility for the child, are systematically linked to how poor families are. The greater likelihood of children with BAME parents going into care is probably due to a combination of higher poverty rates and discrimination. Judges have even commented on unfair treatment.
Following her conviction, Mandy has worked towards a stable life and found a job. But she isn’t able to put the past behind her while she is still fighting for custody of her daughter. Given her experience, she isn’t surprised that so many women with convictions go on to reoffend. ‘People reoffend because the system pushes you into reoffending. You become powerless to change your situation any other way.’
Ruby shares this sentiment. After her first conviction, she experienced such acute isolation and victimisation as a result that she ended up reoffending. As a Muslim woman who wears a niqab and abaya, she experienced overt Islamophobia from the police officers who arrested her.
It is not altogether surprising that Muslim women experience institutional racism at the hands of the police. Ruby tells us that government programmes set up to tackle terrorism, such as Channel or Prevent, have contributed significantly to Islamophobia she has experienced, and there is a mounting body of evidence that such programmes lead to Muslim individuals being viewed through the lens of risk and primary forms of disadvantage they face being ignored in favour of a criminal justice approach.
Muslim women suffer intersecting discrimination, and when prejudice and disadvantage lead to receiving a conviction, they are at risk of being rejected by their community, as Ruby was.
‘I face stigma in the community too. As a Muslim woman, I’m expected to take on family responsibilities, take care of the home, and be a primary carer. A lot of Muslim women experience domestic violence but are silenced or don’t feel they can speak out. Although I was a victim of domestic violence myself, I ended up being arrested. And when you’ve got a conviction, it affects every aspect of your life: employment, insurance, and how your community treats you.’
Like Mandy, Ruby has had to fight for custody of her children. Neither her or her extended family have been allowed to see them for years. In her case she is battling her abusive ex-partner, and her efforts to convince the court that she should be allowed to see her children are impacting her ability to secure work.
But while Ruby’s faith has seen her face severe discrimination, it is also her comfort. ‘My faith and the niqab have helped me to cope. They help me to be patient, to deal with difficulties, and are a source of self-control. Islam is a positive and integral part of my life.’
Women stand to lose a lot when they become involved in the criminal justice system. The knock-on effects on family life or employment stretch far into the future. And institutional racism that inflates the chances of women from BAME backgrounds receiving a conviction means that groups that are already discriminated against when it comes to employment suffer even more setbacks.
Studies have proven that even having a name on your job application that suggests you are from an ethnic minority background slashes your chances of being asked to interview. British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts. Add to this the significant barrier of having a criminal record to declare, and your chances of securing meaningful employment diminish. Knowledge of this fact leads many great candidates to have a defeatist attitude or lack self-esteem.
‘The intersections of my identity, my ethnicity, mental health issues, debt, low income, the area I live in – it all collides and makes an impact.’
Cheryl has a job, and shared with us that, as a Black woman, she experiences discrimination in her day to day working life. ‘There are systems of privilege in workplaces that keep certain people at the top, while others are relegated to underpaid, overworked positions.’
Cheryl has felt the long-term consequences of a conviction all too keenly. Her obligation to pay court-ordered fines means that she has been in debt for ten years. She describes watching her colleagues talk about their holidays while she can’t afford them, and seeing them get promoted while she has found it difficult to progress up the ranks.
As a Black woman with a conviction, Cheryl faces discrimination on several fronts. The effects of this are very real. Black women are less likely to be given promotions and are more likely to be disciplined at work, all while earning less than their white counterparts.
For many Black women, including Cheryl, the recent Black Lives Matter protests and upsurge of the social movement in public consciousness have had an impact on her work. While the intentions of employers may be benevolent, the increased visibility of Black people in the workplace can be unsettling, and even exploitative.
‘After Black Lives Matter I’ve been asked to do diversity and inclusion work. Before BLM my suggestions weren’t listened to, and now that they’ve become imperative I’m asked to do the work without being paid extra for it.
‘At work, I feel that I can’t be myself, I have to be subdued and contained. It’s jarring, not being able to be my true self every day. But if I speak up, if I disrupt, I know that I’ll be seen as a troublemaker. But the world needs disruptors – otherwise how will anything change?’
When racism is built into the system, there are hurdles at every stage. Women from BAME backgrounds must not be drawn unnecessarily into a system that leads to debt, family breakdown and a criminal record. We need to see employers actively seeking Black, Asian and ethnic minority women for roles, with the knowledge that they will benefit from taking advantage of a neglected pool of talent and strengthen their diversity competency. In the wake of Black Lives Matter, we must all remember that providing opportunities for women with convictions from BAME backgrounds means building a fairer society for everyone.
* Disclaimer: The term ‘BAME’ sometimes masks differences between groups and so we avoid using it where we can, preferring to be specific about who we are talking about.