A court has ruled that the prison service breached disability and race discrimination laws in its treatment of foreign prisoners in the UK.
The High Court ruling came in a case taken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission against the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which delivers prison and probation services in England and Wales.
The EHRC launched the judicial review after NOMS implemented a new policy of transferring foreign prisoners between prisons but failed to consider its impact on disabled or ethnic minority prisoners.
Public bodies such as prisons are legally required to carry out assessments of how their policies will affect disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.
The EHRC said the failure took place despite “widespread documentation” by the prisons inspectorate of “significant discrimination and disadvantage” faced by disabled and ethnic minority foreign prisoners.
The court found NOMS failed to carry out any formal assessments, and described its reasons for failing to do so as “unconvincing”.
After the EHRC started legal proceedings, NOMS carried out retrospective equality impact assessments, which the court said satisfied the law.
EHRC commissioner Kay Carberry said the ruling sent “a clear message” to all public bodies, which should “take the lead in this area and not wait for legal action before seeking to comply with the law”.
She added: “We expect the prison authority to monitor the impact of the policy to make sure that foreign national prisoners are treated in the same way and have the same access to support and rehabilitation courses as all other prisoners.”
The disability charity RADAR welcomed the ruling and said transfers can have a “major impact” upon disabled prisoners, as many of Britain’s prisons are “elderly institutions”.
Last May, RADAR condemned the treatment of two disabled prisoners at HMP Parkhurst, who were left without proper washing facilities for months because of inaccessible bathrooms.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “I hope this judgment will go a considerable way towards preventing any further unequal or inhuman treatment of disabled prisoners.”
But a Prison Service spokesman said: “We regret the fact that the EHRC chose to challenge a policy designed to improve services provided to foreign national prisoners.”
He said the policy – designed to locate foreign prisoners in fewer prisons – remained in place, but could not say whether the government would appeal.
He said the policy was “not a blanket process and individual circumstances will be taken into account before any prisoner is allocated or otherwise moved between jails”.
18 February 2010