EXCLUSIVE By Reena Kumar
BRITAIN’S Asian business community has “huge capacity” to support prisoners but isn’t doing enough to help provide skills and employment when offenders are released, Labour MP David Lammy has said.
The north London politician is chair of the cross-party Lammy Review, which looks into the treatment of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.
In an exclusive interview last week, Lammy told Eastern Eye that the high level of success in the business community enabled entrepreneurs to reach out a hand to the disproportionately high number of Asians in prison.
The Tottenham MP said: “The Asian community knows what success looks like, but I am not seeing the organisations in the numbers there to support
offenders, there to ensure they don’t go to prison, there to ensure they get a job, there to hold the system to account.
“There is a lot of stigma around this area and no one wants their child to end up in prison. But things do go wrong and we also have to be a country where
we are able to give people second chances.”
Lammy is set to release his findings from the report to the prime minister in July.
It follows his initial landmark investigation which revealed that black and minority ethnic (BAME) defendants were more likely to go to prison for certain types of crimes and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts.
His review, which was released last November, also uncovered that 20 per cent of youth prisoners were Asian and the number of Muslims in prison had almost doubled in the last decade.
Lammy urged Asians in business to play a role in helping to reintegrate former prisoners back into society by offering them skills, training and employment.
“I haven’t come across charities and culturally based organisations dedicated to supporting and working in this area, and campaigning on issues of discrimination,” Lammy said.
“When we look at suicide figures in prison, many of those names are Asian names. If you can have charities that are culturally relevant to diabetes or some of the cancers that affect BAME people… than you ought to have organisations that are relevant to the criminal justice side that can affect some Asian people,” he added.
Lammy became the first black Briton to study a masters in law at Harvard, and practised as a barrister for several years before entering politics.
He penned the book, Out of the Ashes, following the 2011 violent riots
which began in his constituency after local man Marc Duggan was shot by police.
The chair of the review believes that deep-seated cultural issues about wrongdoing and stigma were preventing individuals from engaging in this
area, but having conversations and acknowledging the Asian prison population would be a step in the right direction.
“Even beginning to talk about these things (could help), knowing that the number of Muslims in prison has doubled over a decade and is rising, knowing that there are female Asian prisoners and not everyone in the Asian community has money and is successful; there are prisoners of Hindu background as well.”
As part of his investigation, the father of three has travelled around the country meeting black and Asian men and women in the prison system as well as young offenders, listening to their experiences.
He said it was clear there were communities who felt isolated and misunderstood.
“Currently we have a very strong narrative on what it means to be a Muslim man and that feeds through to people’s unconscious assumptions”
Lammy said that those in the system were predominantly from poor backgrounds, unemployed and detached from their parents, and families
often with drugs and gangs being at the centre of their criminality.
In total, there were 6,970 Asians in prison as of September 2016, which makes up 8.1 per cent of the population, 5,209 of those identified as Muslim.
The MP’s emerging findings revealed that BAME males were almost five times more likely to be housed in high security prisons for public order offences than white men and more likely to receive custodial sentences for sexual crimes if
convicted at magistrates’ courts.
Lammy said the criminal justice system responded to big narratives in the media and added perceptions of dangerousness and violence were attached to certain communities in a big way.
“Currently we have a very strong narrative on what it means to be a Muslim man and that feeds through to people’s unconscious assumptions about the
defendants or offenders in front of them; that could be a real issue in the prison system. Before you know it, that prisoner is coming back to prison because they didn’t get help when they were in the system.”
During his research, Lammy said that he had been particularly touched by Asian women who had ended up locked up and who he described as extremely vulnerable and stigmatised.
“They are very isolated and sometimes end up very isolated from their children. One young woman told me that her brother said that he would prefer to kill her than for her to come out of prison because of the shame of it.”
He added that women were often more ostracised from their families than men and sometimes found themselves being abandoned upon their release from prison.
Lammy’s review also involves looking into judicial ethnic diversity, including in both the criminal courts and the tribunal courts. Currently only six per cent of court judges are black or Asian.
The politician explained he was concerned that there were only two BAME judges out of 40 in the hugely diverse city of Birmingham.
He believes that high levels of self-employment in the Asian community put people off volunteering as magistrates. “I met some wonderful women
judges… but we have to see them succeed, we have to hold them up as role models, we need to see them enter the supreme court.
“We also need Asian magistrates and we have to hold to account those who deliver justice to make sure it’s fair.”