Why Are Twice the Number of Black Women Imprisoned for Drug Crimes in the UK Than White Women?

  • Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

(Illustration: Ella Strickland de Souza)

In the UK, for every 100 white women handed custodial sentences for drug offences in 2014, 227 black women were imprisoned.

"I wasn't expecting to go to prison," says Dionne. "Even the police were really nice when they were arresting me. They said I wouldn't get a custodial sentence because it was my first offence, I'd always had a high profile job and there were mitigating circumstances – I was an addict."
Last year, researchers from the Ministry of Justice found that for every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences in 2014, 227 black women were given prison terms. Dionne is part of the latter cohort. In 2013 she was jailed for 12 months after an addiction to crack cocaine spiralled out of control. She stole thousands of pounds from a pool of very vulnerable people – the patients she looked after as the care home manager of a residence in Birmingham.
"I was in a very high position of trust, and what I did was very wrong," she says, her voice cracking slightly. "But there were reasons. I didn't want to steal money to buy a house, or buy a fancy car. I stole 5k, but I spent a lot more of my personal money – my salary – on crack cocaine. Five thousand was a drop in the ocean to what I probably spent on crack cocaine in 12 months. So I could have stolen a lot more." Dionne pauses for thought, before laughing. "I sometimes wish I'd stolen 20 grand, because it makes no odds after that sentence. Do you know what I mean?"
It wasn't just the police who told Dionne she wouldn't be going to jail. Even her lawyer, she says, was "99.9 percent sure" that she wouldn't get a custodial sentence. But when she went to the magistrates court in January of 2013, she quickly realised things might not be so simple, faced – as she was – by three white "very posh Women's Institute-looking" magistrates who immediately sent her to a crown court. "They were obviously hoping to give me more than 12 months," says Dionne. "They saw a black person and weren't willing to hear anything of my good character or that I'd never been in trouble – other than a driving offence."
After serving 13 weeks of her 12-month sentence in prison, Dionne has been left with PTSD, nightmares and a fear of being trapped in small spaces. Her caseworker at Birmingham women's centre Anawim, Gina Graham, says that when they meet she has to leave the door open so Dionne doesn't feel trapped.
The research into ethnic minority experiences of the UK's criminal justice system (CJS) was released as part of the emerging findings of the Lammy Review, a report commissioned by Labour MP David Lammy. This particular nugget, on black women's experiences in the CJS, stood out. However, the review has also turned up some other worrying facts about a prison population in which 10 percent of inmates are black, even though black people make up just 3 percent of the UK population; those facts being that there are 141 black men in prison for drug offences for every 100 white men, and that for every 100 white men, 112 black men were sentenced to custody overall.
For full article, please see: VICE
Illustration Credit: Ella Strickland de Souza
@CharlieBCuff / @ellawilksharper / @elladesouza

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