Occasionally here at blackpresence we get sent manuscripts advertising upcoming books. We always try to support quality work our online community, none more so than the upcoming book “Almost British” from Author Olivea M Ebanks.
The Passion that this book is written with shines through. Olivea’s determination, not just to take on the establishment and win, but to then write a detailed and frank book about experiences that would have broken lesser mortals warrants nothing less than a glowing report of this book. as we approach Black history Month and begin to celebrate our achievements and the strides taken by black people in Britain, throughout history. We remind ourselves that there is still some way to go, and that only by fighting injustice and working for solidarity can we ever hope to achieve respect and recognition.
This book is a must read Item for anyone, with an interest in black history and in justice.
One woman did the unimaginable and achieved the hitherto unattainable: she stood alone and successfully took ‘Her Majesty’s Prison Service’ to court, exposed racist behaviour and won judgements against the institution and named perpetrators.
Olivea M EBanks now tells her story of Institutional racism within the U.K Prison Service.
At that precise moment Olivea realised that no matter how well educated, articulate or funny she was as long as she was black, she would never be British enough! She had never considered her Britishness before joining the Prison Service. But since then, the demarcation line between black and white was drawn and redrawn until she got the message You’re a minority here and you don’t belong! We’ll do whatever it takes to get you out!’
This is a story of triumph. In January 2008, Olivea took the Prison Service to court for direct racial discrimination, harassment and victimisation. And she won! She had endured racial comments, being ostracised and put on ‘garden leave’ for 19 months, accused of being a poor performer, aggressive and antisocial. She had been unsupported by a national institution that was not only flush with money from the public purse but was fortified by their familiarity with the law. She was uncertain about everything except her cause. Simply put Olivea firmly believed that poor treatment of staff was manifesting as poor treatment of prisoners. Someone had to state the obvious: racism doesn’t respect boundaries. It won’t blight the lives of employees like her and ignore the prisoners. It will spill over and poison every genuine endeavour to treat people humanely, and someone needed to say as much. This resolve empowered Olivea to stand alone as a singular voice of reason and challenge.
Olivea had joined the Prison Service as the Head of Learning and Skills at HMP Leicester in September 2003. Amid concerns of institutional racism, Olivea believed that she would become part of the solution to improve the treatment of prisoners against the backdrop of the murder of Zahid Mubarek, a 19 year old Asian man who had been put in a cell with a violent and racist psychopath. Zahid’s cries to be moved were ignored and on the day that he was to be released he was bludgeoned to death by his cellmate who was known to have extreme racist views and a previous conviction for attempted murder of an inmate.
At 40 years old, Olivea was sociable, strong and dedicated. The Prison Service looked like the kind of challenge that would enable her to progress her life and the lives of others. She knew that on joining, she would find a montage of human frailty and success stories. Olivea was not naive; she knew that to be part of fundamental change in an organisation steeped in tradition would cost much; though she never for a moment thought she would pay with her health and her sanity. And that having paid it would seem to be for nothing!
On her first day in September, Olivea realised that the clever marketing information she read previously, had created a very different world to the one she was starting to experience. In April, she had seen images of multi-ethnic staff looking motivated and energised. The first thing she found was the staff were predominantly white. The approximate make-up of over 45,000 employees (enough people to populate a city), was 95% white. With all her research Olivea had never thought to check what the actual ethnicity ratios were. She had never thought about how outnumbered she would be. But then who does? It had been many years since she had worked in such an overwhelmingly white environment. At Leicester prison the ratios were even worse. The prison was not at all representative of the community in which it stood. Leicester City’s cultural mix was vibrant and evident. The city had been described as likely to be the first in Europe to have a majority non-white population by the next summer Olympics in 2012. The Olympics is known for its celebration of unity, yet this spirit of perpetual hope and variety was starkly contrasted by the sea of same gender, white faces that met Olivea when she entered the prison. Out of over 200 staff, there were only 6 from a Black or Asian background: 2 officers, 1 officer support guard, 2 administrators and Olivea. As it dawned on her that the sad reality for many of the officers was that the only black people they had anything to do with were the ones they were locking up each day reinforcing negative stereotypes Olivea knew she had her work cut out for her.
Two years later, Olivea moved on to become an Area Leadership Advisor at the Prison Service College. It was here that she met Sue her manager, her nemesis. Sue’s motivation seemed only to get through the working day with as little effort as possible. In the two years that followed, Olivea never saw concern for the officers or the prisoners as Sue busied herself with idle gossip and self promotion. The college was responsible for shaping the minds of prison officers and governors, yet it was here that Olivea experienced calculated and organised racism. For a while she endured blatant, differential treatment. For a while she endured being bullied and told off like a child in front of her peers. But when her manager decided not to allow Olivea, as the only black manager on the team to represent the College at a meeting, because it would seem tokenistic; and when Diane, a colleague decided that the training she had delivered as a white woman to black managers, was as if ‘white woman bring medicine and did magic!’ Olivea knew she had to speak up.
Through personal crisis, depression and a test of faith, Olivea decided to take the Service to an Employment Tribunal. The pain and stress of preparing for the hearing opened a level of consciousness formally unknown to Olivea. In the middle of the bicentenary celebrations for the abolition of the Slave Trade, her journey to find not only evidence and case law but herself, had her make connections to the legacy left by slavery and life in Britain today.
In January 2008, Olivea stood alone, presented her case for 15 days, and won judgements against the Prison Service. But they did not formally acknowledge the judgements. They did not sanction the managers who were found guilty. In fact, they promoted them! Olivea was offered a temporary promotion for 18 months. Olivea was disappointed, but this soon gave way to the magnitude of her achievement. She had won her court case and this was important for her and others like her. It was a record that could not be erased: racism existed within the senior management grades of the Prison Service. Fact! Her victory was proof. Others needed to know that winning was possible and that each win secured, would usher in change for the vulnerable.
With too few black and ethnic staff able to progress so that they are representative at every level of the organisation, and black prisoners, statistically proven to be overwhelmingly, more likely to be treated unequally, this imbalance poses a pernicious and dangerous problem. Olivea is raising the alarm because poor treatment of staff and prisoners is destructive and can only end in tragedy. Someone has to listen; someone has to take notice before something really bad happens!