Strategies Used by Young, Black Men in Custody’

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Wilson, D. (2004) ‘ Keeping Quiet’ or ‘Going Nuts’: Strategies Used by Young, Black Men in Custody’, in The Howard Journal, Vol. 43 No 3. July 2004

To understand the importance of the findings it is crucial to understand the context and time in which the article was written. Firstly, there is the criminalisation of young people. Young adults are significantly over represented in the criminal justice system. Statistics showed the police in England and Wales arrested 208, 262 young adults aged 18-20 in 2009-10. The article was written after New Labour came to power. Tony Blair believed that young people turned to crime because of the lack of education (poor schooling), parental control and socialization. Therefore new policies were concerned with crime prevention. The police became more suspicious of young adults, which led to more stops and searches, which subsequently led to more arrests. Therefore if you look for something you will eventually find it.

Secondly, because of the war in Afghanistan and 9/11 people often treat Muslims with prejudice. The number of Muslim prisoners almost doubled during the last 10 years (Independent). Muslims were believed to be terrorists.

The black Muslims in the South also admitted they were treated worse since the 11th of September. The guard in a prison threw a Koran on the floor, which demonstrated that he did not have any respect for the religion and for Muslim people.

Thirdly, there are issues of immigration. There is a moral panic about Britain becoming overcrowded and immigrants taking jobs from British citizens. In 2013 77% of 3,244 interviewees wanted to see a reduction of immigration to Britain. (NatCen Social Research’s British Social Attitudes survey). This highlighted a negative attitude towards immigrants. In the article a police officer asked a young man from Baghdad what he was doing in Britain, thereby exposing racism in the British police force.

We also should not forget the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. Black people were perceived to be a threat to public order. A black person was three times more likely to get stopped and searched and arrested by the police. The police officers as a result of racial prejudice associated black people with the underclass. Being a black Muslim seemed to be the most disadvantageous thing of all.

Black young adult Muslims had the highest unemployment rate with young adults in Britain. This was possibly one of the reasons they might turn to crime. Black people were over represented in prisons, yet we know very little about their experiences. A researcher went to three different offender institutions and asked the young black men to tell him about their lives there. This research used an ethnographic approach. 45 young men were interviewed. The article was based on the previous work of Wilson (2003). All the interviewees were aged between 16 or 17 years of age. The paper tried to answer what it was like to be “black”, “young” and in prison. It revealed how young black people tried to adapt in order to deal with the reality of their incarceration. The findings also contributed a little to prison “cultural” research. Another goal of the research was to contribute to a new shift in childhood sociology that saw children being not passive, but active agents, as well as products of social processes (p.318). The researchers also hoped that this study would help the continuing struggle against racism. The article discussed how the interviewees sought comfort in each other instead of filing a complaint and how they tried to resist the youth justice system.

The research found out that these young black men played “the Game”. There are two ways of playing the game: “Keeping Quiet’’ and “Going Nuts”. The game was first created when they were still free and needed to deal with the police on a day-to day basis on the streets. Keeping quiet did not mean that they kept silent and it was not a sign of passivity in the face of authority. The game was not invented by the interviewees but by the police. These unfair stops and searches made young people angry. They knew that they had not done anything wrong. This could lead to self-fulfilling prophecy as the police had already treated them as criminals. In the south of the country the prisoners felt good to be black as a majority of the prisoners were black and they supported each other. The interviewees described each other as a brother and a cousin even though they were not related and did not know each other before they went to prison.

On the contrary, in the north of the country there were very few black people and therefore they felt isolated. The game could also be played at the micro level- sharing information about which guards were trouble, and those you could ask for help. The Muslims were treated particularly disrespectful. An interviewee said that he was viewed as a terrorist. Most often young people were going nuts because of the feeling that they were powerless. The prisoners admitted that the police officers were saying racist things to them in the prison, things that they would not dare to say to them on the streets. There was a poster on a wall that said “I hate niggers” and the police governors did not take it off for months. The best advice from the inmates to a new person who had come to the prison was to keep quiet and not to react to the prison governor’s provocations. The author concluded the article by stressing how important it was for the inmates to confide with each other and support each other if something happened.

Institutional racism was the main theme that was drawn in the article. The term “institutional racism” was introduced in America in the 1960s. The issue had been researched by a number of academics. The most famous instance of institutional racism so far was the Stephen Lawrence’s case. Macpherson wrote a report about the failure of the police to find the gang of racists who killed Stephen Lawrence in 1993. He argued one of the reasons for failure to apprehend the murderers was institutional racism. In his report he defined it as a “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin” (Macpherson, p…date needed)

Bittner (1975) argued that the police existed not only for crime control but to control those who the middle class considered to be dangerous – for example the poor, unemployed and homeless. Statistics showed that a number of stops and searches grew but the number of stops that were leading to arrests continued to decline. The interviewees in the article said they knew that the police did not have any reason to stop them. It was done because of the growing significance of general surveillance. The young black people attracted the attention of the police not because of suspicion but because of racial discrimination and the belief that they were dangerous and disorderly. We could ask why they were stopped at all. Stops had less to do with those who the police believed to be criminal and more with those who the police believed to be the underclass.

After reading this article it is possible to wonder how effective and appropriate the Prison Service is in supervising race related arrangements. It is really worrying that the chief Inspector of Prisons did not think that “race” was a concern in any institutions, even though there were the posters on the walls that stated quite the opposite.

It is important to think how these findings can help us to improve the situation in prison. The prison governors would benefit from more training, so they would be made aware of the cultural differences. Diversity of staff is also something that could improve the situation in prisons.

It is obvious that prisoners should be educated on matters of filing a complaint generally and race specifically. They did not know about the Race Relations Liaison Officer or Race Relations Management. Prisoners did not believe that their complaints would lead to anything meaningful, so perhaps someone should investigate how successfully prisons deal with the complaints from prisoners.

Moreover, most of the prisoners felt as though they were stigmatised. This kind of discrimination within prison walls should be dealt with to make sure that prisons are a good place for rehabilitation.

The system of stop and search should be reconsidered because of self-fulfilling prophecy…

It can be argued that improving prison conditions for black and ethnic minorities would benefit the whole of society because if young people leave prisons feeling angry and abused there is a high chance that they would commit a crime again. The men admitted that they were “going nuts” because of unfairness and racial discrimination. They felt that they did not do anything wrong, but they were still being stopped by the police.