'They Gave Me An Asian Lady's Pills' – Women Reveal Experiences Of Racism In Jail

Lilly Lewis says BAME women at HMP Askham Grange were subjected to racist abuse by prisoners, treated differently by staff and mixed up with each other.
Lilly Lewis has spoken out about racism within the prison system
Lilly Lewis has spoken out about racism within the prison system

“Within days of arriving, I overheard other girls joking about golligwogs,” says Lilly Lewis, now 49.

“They were laughing about me. But when I told a supervisor that the prison had a racism problem, she just said: ‘Absolutely not. I don’t know where you’re getting that from.’ I was made to feel like I was causing a fuss.”

Lilly, who is mixed race, left prison after a four-year jail term in December 2019 and now wants to go public with the racism she experienced and witnessed there.

The overrepresentation of Black people within the prison system is worse in the UK than in the US, with Black people comprising just 3% of the general population yet 12% of the prison population. This is only slightly less severe in the women’s estate, where Black women make up 8.9% of the population, compared to 3% of the general population.

Racism has always impacted Lilly’s life: “My white birth mum had an affair with a Jamaican and had no idea what colour I’d be,” she said. “My life was determined by racism from the day I was born.”

While in an orphanage, Lilly developed “fears of rejection and abandonment”. Eventually she was adopted by a white woman and her Ghanian husband, but living in a white-majority area and being bullied in white-majority schools only fomented her fears. As a teenager, “drink became my friend” and violent men her saviours: “I accepted abuse as love because any attention was better than none.”

By 35, Lilly was an addict and her children were in care. She was also found guilty of fraud after calling the police on her abusive boyfriend, who’d been using her bank account to scam people. Though she is still apologetic towards the victims, it is impossible not to note that, like 57% of women in the criminal justice system, Lilly is a survivor of domestic abuse.

Once in prison at Foston Hall in Derby, Lilly felt relief. “There was no alcohol tempting me and there was no abuse from men. The fight was over.”

Here, Lilly got clean and took on every course available, from warehouse management to customer services – “so that, when I came home, no matter what job was available, there was always something I could draw from”.

In August 2017, Lilly was transferred to an open prison, where as a low-risk offender she could enjoy the privileges of release on temporary licence (ROTL). This meant home visits and a job, so she could help support her children and ease back into society. But once she got to HMP Askham Grange, where under 1% of the prison population is Black, racism became a huge problem, she now claims. The Ministry of Justice maintains that there is no record of Lilly making any allegations of racism and discrimination.

The entrance and main building of HMP Askham Grange
The entrance and main building of HMP Askham Grange
Andrew Aitchison via Getty Images

“They’d try to bring me medication meant for other, Asian, women.

“I’d say: ‘That’s not me,’ and they’d say: ‘Aren’t you Mrs Anand*?’ And I’d say: ‘No, that lady’s Asian – I’m half Jamaican.’ All they saw was a brown face.”

She also claims white prisoners were treated better than BAME prisoners when it came to the amount of money they were charged by the prison while working. Mothers, 57% of the women’s estate, could get this levy reduced and funds instead used to support their children. But according to Lilly, white women were granted this reduction more often than BAME women.

When Lilly complained to staff at Askham Grange, she says she was told this had “nothing to do with race”.

There is no data available on who gets these levy reductions. The Lammy Review into the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system in 2017 called for more race-disaggregated data to be recorded.

As a Samaritans listener for the prison, Lilly often heard others’ stories of racism, too. An Arabic woman and her infant daughter on a mother and baby unit told Lilly they had been racially harassed: “The others would call her baby ‘yellow’ and she was ostracised from play.” To escape this misery, the woman forfeited three months of access to her daughter and returned to the main prison population. Lilly says the complaint she helped this woman submit resulted in an acknowledgement of the bullying and an apology, “but by that point her little girl had gone”.

Babies sleeping in cots in the mother and baby unit at HMP Askham Grange
Babies sleeping in cots in the mother and baby unit at HMP Askham Grange
Andrew Aitchison via Getty Images

The MoJ said of her case: “Several complaints were made regarding tensions in the mother and baby unit. The prison responded to these, including one prisoner’s allegation of racism, by delivering mediation. This received a positive response from all prisoners concerned.”

Then there’s Funmi* who Lilly says was “targeted” because of her Nigerian heritage – firstly, being aggressively cornered in the prison library and sent back to a closed jail for two weeks because authorities wanted to find out whether she was Nigerian or British. (She is British.) The MoJ told HuffPost UK this was an “administrative error that was swiftly dealt with”.

Upon her return, Funmi began work in a warehouse. “She was being abused every day. Two guys took her into the office and screamed at her about her stats and she told me: ‘I know it’s because I’m Black.’”

Funmi complained to Askham Grange staff, Lilly says. “She was in tears, saying she couldn’t stay in that job for 12 weeks. She said she was being treated differently because she was Black, but they forced her to go to work.”

Soon after this, a notepad Funmi had been using to write letters to her husband was confiscated. “Guards came to her room and took the notebook in an evidence bag and said they were sending it off to be tested for spice,” Lilly claims.

In the two weeks it took for the test results to arrive, “She was petrified. And it wasn’t spice paper, it was just a coarse notebook,” Lilly explains. “So three traumatic things happened to this woman in a really short space of time.”

A yellow prisoner complaints box at HMP Askham Grange, a women's open category prison in Askham Richard village, North Yorkshire
A yellow prisoner complaints box at HMP Askham Grange, a women's open category prison in Askham Richard village, North Yorkshire
Andrew Aitchison via Getty Images

Various complaints procedures, including an anonymous route, are in place at all prisons. And an April 2019 inspection of Askham Grange found that: “There was no formal support for [BAME prisoners], but we did not find any evidence of direct racial discrimination”. However, Funmi felt afraid to complain, Lilly says, and she felt the same. “You were accused of playing the race card, and so you were too frightened to raise it in case you got punished or penalised.”

Lilly instead focused on advocating for other women who’d overcome domestic violence and mentoring at-risk young offenders. She was eventually shortlisted for the Emma Humphries Memorial Prize for women who’ve raised awareness of violence against women and girls – but even then, as a serving prisoner, barred from attending.

Refusing Lilly temporary leave to go along to this low-key gathering of assorted women’s rights campaigners was, according to Trevor Brown – Askham Grange’s acting deputy governor – because of “public perception”.

In a letter seen by HuffPost UK, Brown wrote: “What we may view as a positive criminal justice experience may be seen as a significant negative.”

Lilly was later told that the true reason for not allowing her to attend was her ethnicity. “My senior officer said: ‘It’s because your face doesn’t fit,’ and that really upset me. If I was a white girl, I would have been encouraged to attend.”

Three weeks after Lilly was awarded the Emma Humphries Memorial Prize in her absence, she was released from prison and finally able to speak openly about the injustices she faced inside. She had previously spoken about her life, so why not the racism? “When you’ve been in abusive relationships, you learn to accept people telling you no, you can’t do this,” she explains. “And when you do find your voice, you’re treated like you’re trying to manipulate the system. I wasn’t – I was just standing up for what I was entitled to.”

To Lilly, the solution to racism in prisons is reform: “Prison has to be the answer for really violent criminals and those who harm children. For others, we should be looking at community-based units for rehab and education.” Indeed, Ministry of Justice research has found that localised women centres – recommended by the 2007 Corston Report – are successful in reducing re-offending.

“Prison has to be the answer for really violent criminals and those who harm children. For others, we should be looking at community-based units for rehab and education.”

- Lilly Lewis

Lilly believes women’s centres will leave prisoners “in a better position than when they came in.” In the meantime, “Askham Grange needs a more diverse force and equalities training. There was one Black officer in the whole prison and even the equalities woman was a little white lady with blonde hair. How could she understand what we’re going through?”

The Ministry of Justice says 14% of the prison and probation service’s new recruits are BAME, matching the proportion of BAME people in the UK’s wider population.

Lilly is now working for In2change, an alternative education provision to deliver talks in schools about race, the criminal justice system and the effects of domestic abuse. She’s also working closely with APPEAL to get her story out. Naima Sakande, women’s justice advocate at the charity fighting miscarriages of justice and demanding reform, tells HuffPost UK: “BAME women in England and Wales face discrimination, prejudice and violence every day – and nowhere worse so than in the criminal justice system.

“The time for talk is over and the time for action is now. Women like Lilly should never be subjected to the racist discrimination she faced in prison. The very least we can do to atone for her treatment is to ensure no woman endures this again.”

As Lilly puts it: “You’re told the judge judges you, but when you get into prison it’s about rehabilitation. It’s meant to be about making you a better person, supporting you through that. I’d gone into there on my knees, and they should have been proud of what I achieved.”

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said: “Racism is not tolerated in our prisons and we take action where appropriate.

“By overhauling prison punishment processes and providing extra staff training, we are ensuring everyone feels supported whatever their ethnicity.

“More widely, we are improving diversity in the prison service and committed to tackling disparity in the criminal justice system.”

*some names have been changed.


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