by R. A. Bolden


In the Prison Estate of Great Britain, institutional racism is an issue that keeps rearing its spotty head like some anguished personality the family would rather forget.  It exists and the State must decide whether culturally embedded beliefs such as racial intolerance, indignation and disgust undermine policy delivery.  If so, they are a threat to the human rights, public morals and egalitarian ideals of the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus.

      Martin Narey, Director General of the Prison Service, interviewed on the nationally-televised programme EAST (BBC2), admitted, under rigorous examination by the presenter that the Prison Service was "institutionally racist".  On the same documentary, Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief Inspector of Prisons said, "The Prison Service has an attitude with an undercurrent of racism.  Their policy is good but delivery is poor."  This indictment is supported by prima facie evidence.

      After leaving the Servery, where we got our meals, I overheard a Black inmate and a White officer quarrelling.  The officer pointed a finger at him and said: "That's why your kind keeps coming back to prison."  The moment held me transfixed like slow motion in a film.  My legs were still moving as I carried my plate to my cell, but I felt curiously drunk upon the rhetoric like I'd been slapped across the face with an epiphany.  Watching them, it was a though my color had been defined for me; a line drawn in the sand to show being Black fatally undermined the status quo.  I craved wisdom like some starved thinker crawling out of the Dark Ages.  I wanted to understand the officer's conclusions and the antecedents that got him there.

      I thought about inmateism - prejudicial treatment of inmates because staff think they're scum.  This was a paradox.  The officer's chosen profession is to work with inmates, to help rehabilitate them so they can lead useful lives on release.  In this case, inmateism did not seem like a plausible explanation for his remark.

      I sat in my cell, and ate chips and gravy.  A rat and a hedgehog were fighting on the lawn outside over a crust of bread thrown from a window.  My next thought was the officer must have assumed Blacks coming to prison was a genetic trait.  I knew Darwin had a lot to answer for, but to argue that the replicating molecules, like RNA and DNA, which evolved out of the primeval soup also had behavioral powers was something Darwin never espoused.

      I leaned back in my chair and thought, but if it were true, then humans would be nothing more than genetic machines manipulated by their genes.  Of course, this would be the gene's eye view of us, but it's not who we really are.  Even if there was a gene that predisposed someone to come to prison, which I doubt, there were still factors like environment and upbringing to consider.  I dismissed this line of reasoning as unsatisfactory.

      By now, I'd finished the plum duff.  I made myself a cup of coffee and thought, let's assume the officer held these views as a belief.  Some might argue beliefs must be based upon evidence and reason, but there was no scientific proof for such conclusions.  They must have been based upon an absolutist's passion like xenophobia.  I knew there was no empirical evidence needed to hate.  Passionate beliefs are things you take a chance on, like a hunch at the races.  Hate, like superstitions and lucky charms, is something you want to believe in.  You trust your instincts and leave empirical - scientific evidence as an impossible attainment.  I smiled.  There was a logical ground for the officer's statement.  It was his belief.

      I sat down with my coffee and reached for a dictionary.  Clarity was needed.  There it was, a good definition for racism:  Discriminatory treatment based on a belief of superiority of one race over others.  So his belief was not only passionate but cultural as well.  Therefore, it is true, as the Director General said; the Prison Service is "institutionally racist".

      Then I asked myself, should the State tolerate institutional racism in one of its organs?  John Locke (1632-1704) argued each individual must stand before God and answer for his or her own actions, but suggested the State also had something to say in the matter.  I knew a belief is something you cannot easily change.  Even at the moment the cat-of-nine-tails bites into your back, the pain searing your mind and crippling your body.

      At that moment, you may even want to change your beliefs.  You may utter the trappings of conversion or even beg to wear the anti-racist t-shirt, but your beliefs remain your true beliefs.  They may even grow stronger because of your persecution.  They cannot be changed by the will of the law, only by your free will.  Acts of Parliament, sectarian treaties or even going to prison cannot alter beliefs.  This was evident in County Omagh and on the Shankill Road.  Genuine conversion to racial policy must come from within.

      I had another sip of coffee and thought:  I'm afraid the truth is we'll never convert certain individual's beliefs.  However, if not checked by the State, they will lead to prison regimes that are more retributive than rehabilitative, hidden under the mask of gubernatorial discretion, operating out of the awe of the public eye like pseudo-humanitarian projects whose facile rhetoric charms the impressionable.  Even though the oratory on racial policy is good.  Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons said:  "The delivery is poor."

      To combat this, I concluded, the State must initiate proactive responses with strong doses of anti-discriminatory education to better deliver racial policy, on both sides of the prison door.  Prejudice is ignorance.  And beliefs based upon prejudice create a vertiginous whirlwind in the mind like the seeds of sedition causing social disintegration from within.

      If the State lacks the political muscle to correct poor racial policy delivery in the controlled conditions of its prisons, then this could be seen as a mark of acquiescence to racial policy in general.  Acquiescence to poor racial policy delivery can arguably cause harm to others.  Causing harm to others is wrong.  Therefore, beliefs such as racial intolerance, indignation and disgust, when culturally embedded in an arm of the State undermine policy delivery.

      They are a direct threat to the human rights, public morals and egalitarian democratic ideals of the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus.  That's what's at stake if we're going to win the race.




RAUF BOLDEN is an American born in Colorado.  He studied languages at University where he became a polyglot speaking German, French and Dutch.  As a yacht master, he spent twenty years sailing more than 100,000 nautical miles while circumnavigating the planet with his wife Jeannette Dean, an internationally known sailor and writer. They plan to sail around the world again being very much in love while continuing to write fiction and feature articles.  Their motto for life is, "Never Ever Give Up.”