Racial Hatred in Prisons – Racist Signs and Symbols

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Racial graffiti is particularly rife in Her Majesties Prison Service (HMPS) (see Telfer, 2005). As a result of the Commission for Racial Equality’s investigation into the Prison Service, HMPS enacted two Key Performance Targets for Race Equality, ensuring every establishment has systems in place to “manage all risks related to the effective management of good race relations” (Telfer, 2005, P. 1). The Commission for Race Equality (CRE) investigation highlighted numerous concerns that were not so much about policies and procedures in the prison estate but also involved negative actions and sanctions by staff against staff against black and minority ethnic prisoners (Race Review, 2008). The review records that “a great deal of work has been undertaken at a local level to ensure that the failures identified by the CRE have been addressed” (p. 12) and describes local actions, perceived to have been successful. Despite the positive actions taken by HMPS since the CRE investigation, black and minority ethnic prisoners are more likely to still receive sanction and punishment disproportionately to white prisoners (Race Review, 2008). However, following the completion of this project, the author identified lingering grassroots concerns — often mentioned in Her Majesties Inspector of Prisons reports — about the amount of racist graffiti in prisons, that was not, and has never been explored. Important for the current concerns of HMPS and the wider society is the continued use of these signs and symbols in ways that destabilise the safety and management of those held in prison and threatens the culture and values of all affected.

This research seeks to investigate whether viewing racist signs and symbols increases self-reported levels of racial prejudice and other factors associated with race hate in the prison context. The primary hypothesis of this research is that viewing racist signs and symbols increases prejudice against out-groups and factors associated with racism and hate. A primary aim of this study is to bring focus upon the impact of racial graffiti in prisons, and (following the recent worldwide terrorist attacks) provide further understanding on the effects of visual nationalistic symbology such as flags and markings on behaviour and attitudes (e.g., Butz, Ashby Plant & Doerr, 2007). Although hate symbols have been studied outside of social psychology (e.g. in historical research), the researcher has not been able to identify any previous empirical research that rigorously tests the outcomes of viewing race hate symbols on variables associated with racial prejudice. Thus impact evidence is sparse. The symbols used to adorn the bodies of members of hate groups, prison walls, cell confines, pseudo uniforms or clothing markers and tags can enforce in-group collectivity. The displaying of these symbols may provide a powerful sense of group identity and a method of either immediate visual recognition or more ‘clandestine’ forms of recognition in the manner of coded wording and numerical presentations. However, this study will test whether the symbols associated with these racist and white supremacy groups are more than just a form of club regalia or some fashion statement. Tests will be undertaken to establish whether the viewing of the signs and symbols increases the social distance, social dominance and prejudice of majority group viewers.

This differentiation submission is divided in three main sections: an introduction, a full literature review sample chapter, and a methodology. In the following introduction, I will first introduce the context for this research focusing on hate and racism within the prison context. I will then explore the role of symbols in race hate, their functions and their possible effects on behaviour and beliefs. I will then outline the aims and objectives of this study.

The next section, the literature review sample chapter, will then set about defining race hate and introducing the psychology of race hate bringing particular focus upon firstly social dominance and terror management theory. Next, I will outline existing research and theory on hate propaganda and Sternberg’s theory in particular. I will also explore the social psychological literature relevant to the role of propaganda in the development of these attitudes. This thesis will draw from a number of theories; predominantly those focusing on prejudice, racism, hate, and social dominance. Elements of “Terror Management Theory” are also drawn upon in the design of this study.

Finally, I include a methodology and preliminary data collection chapter that presents firstly, the pilot study for this research, including a discussion of sample, procedure, methodology, pre and post test results with a brief discussion. Following this the main proposed studies both prisoner and staff is outlined. This section then concludes with a summary of ethical issues, methodology and bibliography.

Context for the Research: Hate/Racism in Prisons

Racism is a complex construct that is frequently confounded with related attributes such as – bias, prejudice, hatred, different biological characteristics, social status, and religious beliefs, doctrines to name but a few. The American Heritage Dictionary proffers two definitions for consideration, one broad in meaning and scope and a second, more refined and focused on the issues within this research.

    • Discrimination or prejudice based upon race.
    • The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.

These definitions are further probed in the section “Defining Race Hate” in the literature review chapter below. The dictionary definitions above, however, are sufficient to make the case that racism is common in the prison environment.

Racism in prisons has been extensively documented with a broad range of commentary illustrating failings and inactions of the Service to control the harassment and targeting of minorities. For instance, in January 2008 it was reported that “race riots had erupted at one British prison, creating an extremely dangerous environment for ethnic minority prisoners who now fear for their safety”. It was further reported that prison officers and staff were “actively complicit in both encouraging racial abuse against ethnic minority prisoners and ignoring complaints regarding racial abuse” (Arani Solicitors, 2008):

“Moreover, 99% of the staff there also remains of white origin. To date, in over ten months of being at HMP ***** he has only ever once come across a non-white officer. This extreme imbalance across the board ferments intolerance, racial hatred and white supremacist behaviour from a large percentage of inmates as well as some of the officers too.”

“At H.M.P ***** he has been able to see, at first hand, racist graffiti on both walls and windows – namely in the segregation block. Slogans such as ‘n*gger’ and ‘NF’ are common place. Moreover, he also states that he once overheard another, black, inmate complaining to a senior officer after finding similar writing in and around the kitchen locker area. The inmate was naturally upset, asking for a reason why staff had had clearly turned a blind eye to such an extent that even blatantly racist graffiti was not expunged. The Claimants states that the point remained: if inmates are clearly able to view these outrages then naturally the officers are cognisant of it too. He feels that given this stagnant attitude on the part of staff, it only further prevented him from complaining about the taunts that he had received as he was certain either little or no action would be taken.”

In 2000, the Commission for racial Equality announced a formal investigation into racial discrimination in the Prison Service. Three prisons have been named: HMP Brixton, HMYOI Feltham and run HMP Parc. The investigation will take place because of serious concerns amongst Commissioners that racialism is rife in some Prisons.

According to CRE Chair Gurbux Singh (HMPS, 2000) the CRE Commissioners had developed a growing disquiet about incidents that resulted in confirmed racial discrimination within HMPS, taking the extraordinary measure of initiating a formal investigation. This measure was initiated because the recent murder at HMYOI Feltham of Mr Zahid Mubarek, a serving prisoner. The CRE believing the murder was racially motivated. Furthermore, it was also their belief that the circumstances surrounding the treatment of Claude Johnson, a prison officer serving at HMP Brixton[1] was also racially motivated. Singh reports that the CRE find it unacceptable to “allow racist bullying, harassment, violence and murder to continue unchecked in our prisons – whether between inmates, inmates and staff, or amongst the staff themselves.”

The CRE was subsequently asked by Martin Narey, then Prison Service Director General to perform a Formal Investigation into HMPS to identify areas of concern and produce an Action Plan for change (HMPS, 2000).

Further reporting some 3 years later in national press following the publication of the report into the Prison Service by the CRE provides a backdrop of Prison Service comment. Narey talked of his “shame and horror” as the report gave indication to the extent of the level of racism in British jails. Following the CRE investigation, Narey discussed a joint agreement to engage in an action plan to take forward the findings and recommendations of the report. Furthermore, the report uncovered continuing examples of “vile racist graffiti in jails” – “letters from prisoners at HMP Parc, South Wales, often carried the initials KKK and RVS (Rhondda Valley Skins)”. The CRE report argued “It would be hard to find more obscenely racist material. However, there was often little sign of a pro-active approach on the part of staff toward stopping racist behaviour.” The Director General when responding to the report stated “I felt as I read it there were some shameful things in there that as a Prison Service we should look at with horror. We should work hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

In retort to Narey the CRE chairman Trevor Phillips discussed 14 failing areas within HMPS, from a possible 138 British jails. He elected not to issue a Non-Discrimination Notice because HMPS had agreed to bring about improvements in race equality through the intended action plan. However, should HMPS fail to make considerable improvements within the next five years the CRE are still able to issue the Non-Discrimination Notice. (Mail on Line, 2003).

Her Majesties Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers said,

“Our principal finding is that there was no shared understanding of race issues within prisons: instead there was a series of parallel worlds, inhabited by different groups of staff and prisoners with widely divergent views and experiences” (2005, P. 1).

Owers reports that the thematic review discovered a variety of disparity of treatment for visibly different prisoners and that minority prisoners had, on the whole, a poorer experience that white prisoners and that their particular needs were not being met. The report notes that prisoners from visibly different minorities were more likely to experience a feeling of being unsafe and to experience racist bullying, particularly from other prisoners. More black prisoners reported that most staff did not treat them with respect, with black men reporting that they were more likely to be victimised by staff. The report utilised focus groups of visible minority prisoners and reported that they said that racism manifested itself in access to the prison regime, and the way staff treated and spoke to them.

Table one reveals that (n=14%) prisoners from visible ethnic minorities state the have been the victim by staff, that white prisoners (n=2%). Less than (n=6%) of visible minority women stated they had been victimised by staff than other visible minority women (n=14%). More juvenile and adult men (n=21% & 19%) as apposed to young adult men or women (n=9% & 7%) state that they had been victimised by staff, all on the grounds of race. This data it is argued provides positive support that prison staff do treat non-white prisoners less favourably than white prisoners.

“Has a member of staff victimised you here on the grounds of race?”

Table 2 reports on the proportions of prisoners who purport to have suffered victimisation from other prisoners on the grounds of race. It can be seen that more prisoners from visible minorities claim to have been victimised than those prisoners who are visible white (n-11% & 2%). An increase in the number of Asian prisoners can be seen in all groups and establishment particularly Asian women (n=37%) who state that have been victimised on grounds of race by other prisoners. Similarly this data supporting the argument that white prisoners treat non white prisoners less favourably.

According to Ellis, Tedstone and Curry (2004) overrepresentation of black and minority ethnic prisoners is evident. In their brief study of what works they present an evaluation of the preceding 12 years indicating a clear and precise manner in which racial hatred and discrimination were occurring within British prisons and more importantly for this study is that their findings now nearly 20 years present a striking similarity to that which is hypothesised in this study. In furtherance according to Ellis, Tedstone and Curry (2004, p. 2):

    • Verbal; abuse, threats and other harassment in prisoner – staff, and prisoner – prisoner relations.
    • Prison Officers differential use of discretion over offences, punishment, complaints and re-categorisation[2].
    • Differential allocation to cells, wings and other prisons.
    • Differential access to jobs, training and education.
    • Physical abuse in prisoner – staff and prisoner – prisoner relations

However there being no further rationale in the study for these outcomes, rather an action set delivery plan. These findings, it is argued demonstrate the out-group treatment by white staff and prisoners to black and minority ethnic out-group prisoners; thus providing further argument in support of the hypothesis that those high in racial hatred and prejudice will be more punitive to those who threaten their societal and cultural norms and values; in this case measured in the differential application of reward and sanction.

According to Bowden (2006) in presenting the Home Office Statistics 2003, that 16% of all male prisoners are from a black and minority ethnic background and according to Ministry of Justice statistics (2008) black and minority ethnic prisoners has considerably increased. For illustration purposes only it can be seen that black and minority ethic HMPS staff has not increased at the same or similar rate.

He argues that predominantly black prisoners suffer at the hands of white prison staff, with further punishment and oppression levelled at those who complain about the treatment and abuse. He cites the treatment of a mixed race prisoner Sean Higgins who, he postulates, typifies treatment that black and minority ethnic prisoners receive at the hands of white prison staff. He catalogues a history of racial abuse and ill treatment and argues that it was administered by racially motivated staff. He further cites cases of deliberate delay when responding to complaints. This is supported by the Commission for Race Equality enquiry report (2003) in (Boden, 2006, p.2):

“Some prison staff discourage or prevent making racist complaints and those who plucked up the courage to speak out against discrimination were victimised for making the complaint”.

In contrast to Her Majesties Inspector of Prisons report which indicates a propensity towards minor and subversive prejudice amongst both staff and prisoners, prisons in the United States are experiencing a more overt style of racism, with white supremacy groups and gangs contributing to a continual escalation in American penitentiaries of violence and racial tensions, (Anti-Defamation League, 2005). Overt publications of prejudicial material are commonplace. For instance 14 Word Press, was established in Idaho to publicise the teachings of serving prisoner David Lane, and to distribute his writings and related paraphernalia. 14 words being symbolic in its translation and adoption by neo-Nazi and race hate groups, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”.

In summary, racial graffiti although common in many communities is particularly rife in prison environments like HMPS (see Telfer, 2005). Furthermore the investigations by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) into the Prison Service, HMPS enacted two Key Performance Targets for Race Equality, ensuring every establishment has systems in place to “manage all risks related to the effective management of good race relations” (Telfer, 2005. p. 1). However, following the completion of this project, the author identified lingering grassroots concerns — often mentioned in Her Majesties Inspector of Prisons reports — about the amount of racist graffiti in prisons, was not, and had never been explored. The decision to firmly position this research within a prison environmental setting was taken in part because of the author’s involvement in penal establishments – Prison Governing Governor, also bearing witness and testimony to both the images and graffiti, and a pursuance of the underlying causal effects.

Additionally, following an expansive literature review, it was evident to the author that the societal and cultural threats and dangers endemic in society are repeated in the mirrored micro environment that is a penal institution. Important for the current concerns of HMPS and the wider society is the continued use of these signs and symbols (graffiti) in these manners which destabilises the safety and management of those held in prison and threatens the culture and values of all affected.

Symbols in Race Hate

Within the sphere of a wider society the influence of these symbols can be regularly seen both within Britain but also throughout the world, The symbology of the swastika painted upon a desecrated Jewish gravestone or the extremely powerful and recognisable ‘burning cross’ of the Ku Klux Klan are fine examples of the use and abuse of these images.

Used with kind permission from Mathew Collins. (ed. Signs of Hate)

Nationally and internationally it is evident that signs and symbols play a central role in the conveyance of hate and the enactment of hate crimes. The following are extracts from the United States Hate Incident List (Tolerance, 2005):

El Cerrito. Published on 17/9/05. A swastika was scrawled on a bathroom door at a school.

Amherst. Published on 17/9/05. The words ‘Ku Klux Klan’ was chalked on a black teacher’s driveway.

Eugene. Published on 30/8/05. Three men were charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights after they allegedly threw rock engraved with Nazi symbols through the windows of a synagogue during service.

Bonita Springs. Published on 25/8/05. Swastikas and other hate graffiti were scrawled on a building and a sign at a local school.

Merced. Published on 8/8/05. A trailer with swastikas and the letters KKK was parked in front of a black woman’s home.

However, visual display of these images is not just limited to ‘paint and canvass’ as has been apparent over the past few decades, the internet or World Wide Web has become not only an avenue for display but also recruitment for hate groups worldwide as the internet has provided a base for airing and displaying racist signs and symbols with relative anonymity, racism on the World Wide Web is flourishing. Perusal of white power and neo-Nazi sites all reveal the usage of, and prominent display of, racist signs and symbols. Currently it is estimated that more than 2000 web sites promote hatred and bigotry in some manner or another (Black Information Link, 2005). Some of these are quite passive in manner and try to promote patriotism as a tool for racist bigotry. Others are much stronger, including ‘calls to arms’ to promote white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideologies. Almost all of the pages reveal a wide array of racist signs and symbols, presumably intended to act more as a recruitment tool than a means of instilling fear in the viewers. It is this response to these visual prompts or cues that is of most interest to the present research. Several of the most common symbols are reviewed below:

The ancient imagery of the ‘sawasdee’ or ‘Sanskrit svasti’ both meaning well-being, have now become synonymous with the title ‘Swastika’. This symbol when presented in the original form, arms bent to the left, is representative of peace and harmony. However, it was Hitler in the 1920’s who reversed the image and adopted it as the symbol of the National Socialist Party, later becoming iconic with the Nazi movement. The power of this symbol can be seen today with its adoption by white supremacy, fascist and neo-Nazi groups.

Imagery based upon this style has been evident with early discoveries of its use from Neolithic times. Buddhist and Hindus frequently adorning ornaments and clothing with versions or adaption’s of the image.

Interestingly to display a Swastika styled image is illegal in Germany now but still legal in the United Kingdom.

The SS insignia associated with the Nazi ‘Schutzstaffel’ translated meaning ‘protection squad’. These squads were referred to as the SS and were commonly used as the elite protection guards and in the death camps for brutality and control.

This symbol has its origins in the Nordic Sig Runes and was commonly worn in accompaniment of the deaths head insignia,

The symbols of the burning cross are iconic with the Ku Klux Klan. It is alleged that the burning cross was copied by the Ku Klux Klan from a Scottish tradition of using a burning cross to summon clan members to fight and battle. The image of the burning cross has, through its use by the Ku Klux Klan become synonymous with racial hatred and abuse.

The National Front is a relatively new organisation only coming into existence on 7th February 1967 in London. It was formed by the coming together of three other parties the League of Empire Loyalists, the Racial Preservation Society and the British National Party.

The cementing theme for this new party was ‘Britain is British’, it rejected the concepts of immigration and integration and stood against the ideas of a multi-cultural society.

The Ku Klux Klan or KKK as it is better known and represented by these symbolic letters was established on 24th December 1865 by a group of Confederate soldiers with the aim of establishing a secret society. History indicates that this society was intended to be mutual and societal in origin, but as it grew in numbers and recognition it began to stand outside of the law with focus on mistreatment and brutality towards black people. The meaning of the words comes from ‘kuklos’ a Greek word for circle and ‘clan’ meaning family.

The imagery associated with the Ku Klux Klan of burning crosses, white hooded and robed horsemen attackers and in some cases white robed horses, is well known and documented. However, what started out as an anti black society has now grown to encompass Catholics, homosexuals, immigrants and Jews.

ss death’s head

SS death’s head. Totenkopfverbande (Death’s Head Units). This symbolised the very hard core element of Hitler’s soldiers. They were formed to become an elite force within an elite structure originally guarding the highest risk within the concentration camps. Today it depicts part of the symbol of Combat 18, the British Nazi terrorist organisation and other similar fascist groups.


Eagle with Swastika. This is an amalgamation of the previous German Reich Imperial Eagle symbol, undertaken by Hitler with his interpretation of the Swastika. This symbol became an iconic image not only of the Nazi regime but also of Germany itself.

What is the reason these symbols are so powerful? Why did the National Socialist Party in Germany adopt the swastika – a reworked Hindu peace symbol – as a representative symbol in the 1930’s? Why later in the same party history did they adopt the sig-runes as a symbol representative of death and anti-Semitic hatred? Why have these same symbols and more modern ones (e.g., Lonsdale clothing) been adopted to represent neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups worldwide. The central hypothesis of this study is that these symbols themselves play a central role in the development of race hatred and consequently in drawing membership to these groups. It has to be recognised that those joining, may or may not have racist or prejudicial views prior to membership. However, the effect of these signs and symbols, it is postulated, may give rise to racist and hate thoughts and action, albeit non-consciously.

Aims and Objectives of This Study

The literature review below suggests that symbols are an extremely powerful form of non-verbal communication. Symbols can prime emotions and feelings in both in-group and out-group, and influence both attitudes and behaviour. This research will set out to investigate whether viewing racist signs and symbols increases self-reported levels of prejudice and other factors related to race hate in the short term. This study will provide the first empirical test of this idea and will also seek to understand why the symbols have the effect they do from the perspective of social identity theory in psychology. . This question is of applied importance because it may help to explain the role of such symbols in the recruitment into “hate groups” in the prison environment and elsewhere.

Additional research questions will be asked about differences in reaction to these symbols among different groups. In particular, prison staff as opposed to prisoners. It is argued that this alleged treatment of black and minority ethnic prisoners by white prison staff is embedded into the very bedrock of prison culture and this study will empirically explore whether “in-group” members (i.e. white prison staff) will treat “out-group” members (black and minority ethnic staff and prisoners) differently when triggered by hate symbology. As such, it is anticipated that this research will contribute to the wider literature on race as well as applied discussion about prison management.


There has been much said, written and hypothesised about race, prejudice, hatred, social dominance and distance, hatred and associated propaganda, as well as the psychology of group interaction. However there is limited research on these associations in a closed institutional environment like a prison. This chapter will therefore focus on the general literature on race hate and in the actual dissertation I will also include a chapter on the sociology of the prison environment and the research on racism in such institutions. This review of the literature sets out to firstly bring definition to the concept of race hate, in doing so I review the interplays of prejudice, discrimination and social identity. The review then discuses the psychology of hate from the perspective of social dominance and terror management theory, exploring the threats between the dominant and non-dominant group set within the terror management framework. The review then moves on to discuss the social psychological literature relevant to the role of propaganda in the development of hate and prejudicial attitudes.

Defining Race Hate

The hatred of one person for another, one group for another, one ‘class’ for another – due to their religion, cast, creed, colour, ethnicity, belief or persuasion – is troubling but common to all societies. This section presents a definition of race hate by drawing on the definitive works of Allport and others including Jost & Hamilton, Williams & McGarty, Penny, Sternberg and others. It reviews prejudice and categorisation towards out-groups and the associated discriminatory beliefs and actions. I conclude with a review of research and theory on social identity and public displays declaring affiliation of a particular societal value and belief.

Racism is generally understood as the belief that one race is superior to others. Wellman (1993) argues that according this hierarchical or superiority based worldview:

“culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities” (Wellman, 1993).

Wellman (1993) moves away from the traditional dictionary definitions of racism, arguing that racism is aligned to the cultural belief system that exists within ‘white’ society and culture.

Blauner’s (1972) definition likewise focuses on the treatment of inferiors by the superior.

“social domination by which a group seen as inferior in alleged biological characteristics is exploited, controlled and oppressed socially and psychically by a superordinate group (p. 84)

Further review of the many definitions of racism, indeed appears to set racism within the broader construct of prejudice or along side of it. Both concepts share the commonality of in-group, out-group perception of threat, disadvantage and more so a superiority – inferiority positioning. Thus, it is argued that the threat plays an essential component to the comfortable positional culture and societal values within the in-group.

Ester I. Jusuf (2000) defines racism as a form of prejudice. As opposed to the position of Wellman (1993) she argues that racism is the assumption of superiority manifesting in the belief of ‘special rights and privileges’ (p. 1). Importantly for this research, she further argues that racism is the assumption of individual actions and beliefs on a discriminatory nature resulting in a superior-inferior base. It appears apparent that key elements within racism, irrespective of where the definition is positioned, focus around the perception of one group by another, with furthering elements of inter-group bias and hatred. It is set within these societal values, cultures and self-worth perceptions.

Prejudice can be understood as a premature judgement; this judgement may be positive, it may be negative and possibly will be targeted in a random manner, i.e. towards a group of people or an individual (Allport, 1954). Prejudice is not an objective judgement but rather one based on stereotypical views or assumptions about the targeted recipient or group (Jost & Hamilton, 2005). It has been argued that prejudice can manifest itself by means of previous personal experience or that of someone close, whose experiences are powerful enough to affect the individual (Dovidio, Glick & Rudman, 2005). Prejudice may involve group dislike or emotions of distain or hatred towards others (Jost & Hamilton, 2005).

The traditional explanation[3] of prejudice is presented by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954, p. 9) “Prejudice is an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalisation. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group or an individual of that group”. Allport illustrates this with a homily: “See that man over there? Yes. Well, I hate him. But you don’t know him. That’s why I hate him” (p. 285). Likewise Jack

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