Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Ministry of Justice or dystopian fiction?

Olivea Ebanks
Olivea Ebanks (picture by BBC)
When I think about justice or better still ‘the quality of being just’ a number of obvious things come to mind: balance, proportionality, fairness, impartiality. Yet try as I might when I consider the case of Olivea Ebanks and the restrictions placed on her book ‘Almost British,’ I find it impossible to apply these terms. By way of background ‘Almost British’ is about the events that led up to Ms Ebanks representing herself in court for 15 days alleging direct racial discrimination, harassment on racial grounds and victimisation. She won rulings across each area of discrimination against the prison service and named perpetrators and was awarded compensation for their breaches of discrimination law. The book revolves around incidents as recorded in the witness statement Ms Ebanks presented to court, the evidence presented by the prison service, the judgement and its aftermath. ‘Almost British’ covers the experiences that contributed to Ms Ebanks’ feelings of harassment and victimisation. The book is quite detailed and contains excerpts from emails presented to court by both sides and her personal diary. Additionally her book looks at her heritage as a black woman with Caribbean and African roots. The ideology behind slavery is touched upon and considerations about the legacy of slavery after abolition. There are reflections and musings about her childhood, education, husband, parents and siblings, and her Christian faith. 

Ms Ebanks additionally refers to the racist murders of Stephen Lawrence and Zahid Mubarek, and records personal and community reactions to those tragic deaths. She goes on to capture some of the experiences of her friends and the racism and differential treatment they’ve encountered. In summary, ‘Almost British’ is Ms Ebanks’ personal account of racism in Britain and she shares the experiences of the racism that she was exposed to whilst working for the prison service as one of the platforms for discussion.

It is against this backdrop of complex emotions, facts and historical record that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has imposed restrictions claiming that “Ms Ebanks' book is unbalanced and misleading” (the Voice online19 July written by Merrisa Richards). The MoJ argument goes on to proffer that “Ms Ebanks' claims were misconceived and the tribunal upheld only four of her thirty-seven complaints. All four of those matters were found to be isolated acts by individuals in which no malice was intended.”

Let’s take these points in turn starting with the question of ‘balance’. Firstly, to put things into perspective we should look closely at who is talking about balance. In August 2000 Martin Narey was the Director General for the prison service and he described the organisation as “institutionally racist” (The Independent, Ian Burrell 21 Aug).  By 2005 with regard to the Zahid Mubarek racist murder he described Feltham prison as “institutionally racist” (The Telegraph, Sally Pook 8 Feb). In 2010 the Prison Reform Trust reported that “for many [BME prisoners], racism occurs frequently in prison. Whether among prisoners, or between prisoners and staff; over a third said that racist incidents happen often or everyday” (PRT, ‘A Fair Response’ 2010). It is a well documented fact that the prison service as an agency of MoJ is predominately white and male; the MoJ Equality Schemes Annual Review 2009–2010 reported that only 4.64% BAME people were in senior civil service positions. Whilst the prison service as an agency of MoJ has suggested that there is improvement in the world of race relations, they have not yet been able to definitively say that they are no longer institutionally racist. What we have then, with regard to the question of ‘balance’ is an organisation that is still institutionally racist, predominately white and male determined to put themselves forward as the authority on whether or not a black female perspective and experience of racism is balanced.

I am turning my attention now to the statement that Ms Ebanks claims were “misconceived” because only 4 of her 37 complaints were upheld. It is a shame that the MoJ’s best defence seems only to be to play the numbers game, but having spoken to her husband Mr Rudy Ebanks, he assures me that his wife simply did as instructed. Apparently she was attempting to show an overall picture of harassment over a period of 2 years. In order to do this she was advised to detail and link every occurrence she felt would demonstrate an ongoing campaign of abuse. Had she been advised that she should instead focus on the aspects on which she felt were the strongest elements of her case to secure a judgment of discrimination on racial grounds, that’s what she would have done. Mr Ebanks is especially keen for us to remember that his wife is not a lawyer and that she had never before presented evidence to court nor does she have the experience of collating evidence in a way to withstand the scrutiny of interrogation and law. He is very angry that MoJ is using the issue of numbers to diminish the fact that they were found to be racist and instead are making his wife out to be reactionary and prone to complain about everything.

I move on to the MoJ’s apparent capacity to judge the intents of a person’s heart with the view that no malice was intended. My questions are, if no malice was intended why didn’t the discrimination stop after one incident, and why did the 4 rulings (covering 5 acts of discrimination) span 2 years, despite Ms Ebanks raising internal grievances asking for the differential treatment to stop after the first incident? These are good questions, but it seems no one from the MoJ is available to comment.

I come back to my original considerations about ‘justice’ and proportionality. Ms Ebanks went to a public hearing and disclosed what she felt to be wrongdoing. She named individuals as perpetrators of the discrimination law. The Tribunal made some findings in her favour meaning that HMPS (as it was then known) and 3 individuals were judged to have failed in their obligations to uphold the law whilst executing their public duty. Ms Ebanks has since gone on to exercise her right to tell her story and is being refused permission to publish. This is where it all gets a little confusing. How can the MoJ refuse permission to publish something that is already published? I note that the article in the Voice is generating much interest as people are still adding their comments. The responses are overwhelmingly positive and seem to be generated by people who have read the book. When I spoke to Mr Ebanks he was adamant that the Judicial College where his wife works gave her legitimate expectation to publish. He said “Liv went to see her managers who are judges and lawyers before the book was published. They congratulated her and told her to let the press office know what she was doing. A circuit judge, and two senior civil servants were told about the local publicity she had planned and they were fine about everything. In fact Liv was so motivated by their positive responses that she sent the manuscript to the publishers the very next day. We were both on a high after her managers told her how impressed they were with her. Then two weeks later they called her when we were on holiday and said that she hadn’t got permission to publish, that she was to stop everything or face disciplinary action. It was a complete about turn and by then it was too late because the book was out.” Mr Ebanks claims that the Judicial College (which incidentally is also an agency of MoJ) has since gone on to discipline his wife for gross misconduct, told her not to reprint, distribute or promote her book and she is under treat of dismissal for any further misconduct. “They even wrote to her in May [this year], telling her to tell me to cease my activities on FaceBook regarding her story,” Mr Ebanks continued, “--not satisfied with harassing my wife, they’re now bullying her to bully me! Who do they think they are?”

Having read this particular letter it does feel like something out of George Orwell’s novel 1984 which describes a society ruled by an oligarchical dictatorship. Orwell’s book talks about the ‘Ministry of Truth’ rewriting history in order to show themselves as always correct. The MoJ letter that has so infuriated Mr Ebanks claims that his actions if allowed to continue effectively bypass the prohibition that applies to Ms Ebanks. When I read this I was indeed transported to a place where totalitarianism is the goal and controlling and subjugating people the means to achieving it.

I have tried yet I cannot see the behaviour of the MoJ as impartial or proportionate. I cannot see how the MoJ having had the opportunity to tell Ms Ebanks not to publish, instead chose to praise her for her efforts, can then turn around and make Ms Ebanks out to be some sort of reckless militant, flying in the face of her employee obligations. If Mr Ebanks is to be believed and as the person closest to Ms Ebanks I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, all is not as MoJ would have us believe.

The more I look into this – the more questions I have. Why is MoJ wasting time and money in these austere times, to stop a book that is already published and clearly being read by the nation? I am in no doubt that had Ms Ebanks actually broken the law or any civil service protocols they would have had grounds to dismiss her, so why haven’t they? Why have they instead chosen to discipline her for something they initially had no problems with and then proceeded to gag her without recalling the book? It seems that proportionality has given way to clumsiness and heavy-handedness; perhaps something more sinister is afoot.
Having got hold of my copy of ‘Almost British’ very early on I find that Ms Ebanks has perhaps touched a few nerves and made some connections and disclosures that perhaps the MoJ would rather we remained ignorant of. Whilst she has not shared anything material to her key point that is not readily available from multiple sources, what she has done is conveniently put such information in one place.

Firstly and most importantly Ms Ebanks’ win at Tribunal successfully widens the debate about racism only emanating from prison officers towards prisoners, to include racism in the senior management grades of the prison service. This is historically and politically significant. Up until now racism has been relegated to the officer ranks and between prisoners themselves but now we have proof that the leadership of the prison service have had allegations of racism about them upheld.

Another point raised by Ms Ebanks’ book is she quite rightly drives home the fact that racism does not respect boundaries; one cannot simply suggest it is in one part of an organisation and not in another – racist officers after all (however few and far between) have opportunity to become managers. The book juxtaposes the rhetoric of MoJ officials in their steps to eliminate racism with the actual increases in disproportionate outcomes for black prisoners. In so doing we get an uncompromising and unadulterated glimpse of prisoner treatment that is both worrying and disappointing.

One of the most illuminating aspects of Ms Ebanks’ book is that she gives covert racism a face. We get to see its many dimensions and nuances. We get to see how MoJ policies presumably drafted to help the victim are used to frustrate her efforts at securing a fair and equitable outcome. We get to see how an institution can relentlessly bear down on a single unrepresented person having offered no more than a toothless staff care-and-welfare resource as a way of discharging their duty of care to her.

MoJ says (the Voice online) "We take all allegations of harassment or discrimination very seriously...” yet they conveniently say nothing about what they do with actual real-life judgments proving harassment, victimisation and discrimination as made against them in the Tribunal Reserved judgment dated 14 April 2008. It seems even now in 2011 they are loath to accept that the situation has moved beyond ‘allegations’ to legally binding authoritative judgment.

I wonder if MoJ would be less prickly if ‘Almost British’ could be dismissed as a rambling stream of consciousness and the ravings of a mad black woman. If the book could be dispensed with so easily it would certainly be less of a threat. Fortunately for us it is none of those things. It is intelligently written and quotes MoJ’s facts and statistics back at them whilst asking for explanations for inaction and squarely concludes that the progress made is nothing to boast about. Furthermore, Ms Ebanks’ book is endorsed by Doreen Lawrence OBE, mother of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence. Of the book Ms Lawrence says, “I found Olivea’s story disturbing. I found it difficult to believe that things have not moved on enough to enable black employees to be respected and valued...” No one has yet been convicted of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Eighteen years of campaigning have finally yielded the result that two men are to stand trial in November this year. What is especially poignant is that in the midst of this long and torturous journey, Doreen Lawrence took the time to read ‘Almost British’ and lend her support confirming that this is not a book to be ignored.

It took a lot of courage to do what Ms Ebanks did. She risked her reputation, her employment in a senior position, and then at further peril went on to share her highs and lows to encourage others. And after such forfeit, the Ministry of Justice still thinks all that really happened was Ms Ebanks mostly made allegations that were not substantiated at Tribunal. Because, in her book she is of the view that she can still claim victory the MoJ state her views are “unbalanced and misleading”. What is particularly interesting is that the managers and colleagues who were found guilty of racial discrimination in 2008 were never formally sanctioned yet today it appears that Ms Ebanks has a final written warning for gross misconduct on her otherwise untarnished work record because she thought she had freedom of speech even as a civil servant. Where is the justice in that?

‘Almost British’ is unique and difficult to classify as an autobiography or memoir. It does not sit easily in any genre since it is not a victim piece, it is not purely her opinion; it is evidential and academically structured. Moreover unlike Trevor Phillips’ assertions in February 2009 (chair of Equalities and Human Rights Commission), that “institutional racism as a phrase is a blunt instrument and unhelpful” Ms Ebanks’ story at the very least poses the question that institutional racism has not dissipated; it has simply morphed into something more sophisticated.  This is a timely piece, written with urgency at its core to avert another death in custody.  Its topical nature is one that is generating public interest and the parallels drawn in it should be used to stoke the fires of institutional reform. Everybody wins when equal treatment is more than well-meaning public statements.

In the words of William Wells Brown, a prominent African-American abolitionist, lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian, born into slavery, All I demand for the black man is, that the white people shall take their heels off his neck, and let him have a chance to rise by his own efforts.The MoJ needs to take its foot of Ms Ebanks’ neck. She has suffered enough and deserves to be heard. They have had their say, now it’s time for Ms Ebanks to have hers.

Lee Jasper