08 July 2016
There are problems of discrimination in both sentencing and prison life for Muslims in the UK.
Regarding sentencing, the number of Muslims in prison in England and Wales has more than doubled in the past 12 years to just over 12,000 in December 2015 (about 14% of the prison population). But this is not attributable to either the growth of the UK Muslim population (4.8% are Muslim according to the 2011 census), nor terrorism offences.
Bill McHugh, justice director of not-for-profit criminal justice consultancy, PublicCo, suggests the rise is down to magistrates’ ignorance of and prejudice towards Islam. “I used to see families in court who felt it was the offender not the offence that was being judged,” he says. “They’re associated with terrorism when they’re up for shoplifting.”
Only 130 Muslim prisoners – just over 1% of the total – are convicted of being Islamist terrorists.
It appears that the situation is only going to get worse in the wake of teh Brexit vote. Tell Mama, a national project measuring anti-Muslim incidents, has recorded “over 150 Brexit-related anti-Muslim cases” in the past two weeks.
Tell Mama usually deals with 40-45 reports a month, but says it received 33 within 72 hours of the Brexit result. And police logged a fivefold rise in race-hate complaints including Islamophobic incidents in the following week.
Of the incidents reported to the National Chiefs’ Council the main offences committed are harassment, which means verbal abuse, spitting and barging.
It seems that in the wake of Brexit, perhaps inspired by the anti-immigration rhetoric of the Leave campaign, people are giving voice to opinions normally kept under wraps.
As Tory MP Simon Hoare said in the Commons last week, a “racism genie” has been unleashed.
Discrimination is also evident in prisoner treatment. Over the past year a spate of headlines has warned of the threat of Islamist extremism infecting the prison system, with claims by senior politicians that high security jails have become terrorist training camps. However, new research has found no evidence to support this, and warns that a preoccupation with radicalisation is warping perceptions of prisoners’ behaviour and relationships. Similarly, ex-offenders contend that institutional Islamophobia results in prison officers perceiving Muslim prisoners who adhere to their faith as inherently suspicious.
Last year, the justice secretary Michael Gove commissioned a review on how to tackle extremism in prisons, amid concerns that 1,000 Muslim inmates were at risk of radicalisation.
Ryan Williams, a religious studies academic at Cambridge University’s prison research centre, who has examined the role of Islam in three UK maximum security prisons, says concerns about radicalisation often reflect a failure to understand prison culture and its impact on inmates’ behaviour. In a draft paperpresented at the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference, last month, he wrote that there is a muddling of “issues around extremism, religious identity, and the specific conditions that bring about certain interpretations and enactments of Islam. Within prisons, everyday Muslim practices of praying, reading the Qur’an, or even reading commentary from Muslim scholars about God’s creation and evolutionary theory can raise concerns over extremism.”
The findings reflect research by Maslaha, a social enterprise that works to improve conditions in Muslim communities, in the UK and internationallyand the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, which looked at the experiences of young Muslim men incarcerated in lower category prisons and young offender institutions in England. A group of Muslim ex-offenders from Leicester in their early 20s interviewed for the report, Young Muslims on Trial, published in March, say their friendships and the everyday practice of their faith were misinterpreted negatively.
Suleman Amad, 24, who served a one-year sentence at Glen Parva young offender institution in Leicestershire for the supply of class A drugs, says that Muslims sticking together was perceived as gang culture. “I wouldn’t see it as a gang,” he says. “It’s just naturally Muslims tend to stick together because you have that relationship within your faith .”
This affinity is heightened by the lack of Muslim prison staff, says Amad, who has graduated from Nottingham University with a degree in criminology since his release. “What I picked up straight away was a lack of Muslim representation [among staff]. There was nobody I could relate to. The first Muslim person I came across in prison was an imam a few weeks into my sentence. Before that I’d not come across anyone I could talk to around [my faith and culture] and was sensitive to these topics.”
This lack of cultural sensitivity was also reflected in the racist abuse Muslim prisoners received from prison officers, says the Maslaha report. One officer on seeing a prisoner was wearing a topi, a type of prayer cap, reportedly said: “how come you’re wearing a condom on your head today?”.
Amad says: “[Prisoners] with beards and topis, the staff would joke around and say ‘terrorist’ or other extreme words and they would see it as banter. The staff don’t realise when that line is crossed.”
Raheel Mohammed, the director of Maslaha, says: “Prison officers are public servants. We wouldn’t expect doctors, nurses or teachers to engage in racist banter like that, so we shouldn’t expect it of anyone in the criminal justice system.”
Amad adds that suspicions over displays of religious devotion are misplaced. “We grow our beards in prison because one, it’s a mission to get your hands on a razor and two … they can take everything away from you but they can’t take my religion away from me. I was probably a lot closer to my religion in custody than I am right now. Just on the fact you’re alone, you’re by yourself. The only thing you have is that faith.”
Amad believes the inflammatory rhetoric around Islamist extremism in prison and wider society has overshadowed the positive impact Islam can have on offenders’ rehabilitation. “I remember seeing people in custody [who] on the outside would be the most gangster person ever and they’d come to custody and they’ve grown a big beard on their face. They’ve got a prayer hat on all the time. They’ve become like a model citizen because they’ve found religion. ”
Many Muslim prisoners told Maslaha they were banned from Friday prayers for minor infractions as if practising their faith was a privilege like watching TV. Mohammed contends this is in breach of the Prison Service instruction on faith and pastoral care, which states bans should only be imposed for exceptional and specific concerns for … mental or physical wellbeing, previous serious misbehaviour during worship, or if the governor judges they are likely to cause a disturbance or be a threat to security or control.
Amad says some prison officers seemed to be scared of groups of Muslims, especially at Friday prayers. “No one else would get banned from prayers except for the Muslim people,” he says. “There was one guy who walked over the grass and he got banned for three weeks.”
Ministers and commentators who believe prisons pose an Islamist terror threat sometimes cite a landmark 2011 study of Whitemoor high security prison, where more than 50% of prisoners are now Muslim. It identified tensions relating to extremism and radicalisation, and found conversions to Islam were high. But comparatively little attention has been paid to the other findings, such as Muslim prisoners reporting feeling alienated and targeted, and faith offering them meaning, hope and dignity. The researchers, led by Alison Liebling, professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of at the University of Cambridge’s prisons research centre, found that religion appealed to many prisoners serving long and often indeterminate sentences where restrictions had been placed on meaningful activities.
The findings led Liebling to conduct a further study, with Williams, due to be published later this year, looking at the problem of trust between staff and prisoners in three further maximum security prisons. These were Frankland in County Durham, Full Sutton in East Yorkshire, and Long Lartin in Worcestershire. Williams says claims that Muslim gangs and “emirs” are running prison wings are inaccurate and misleading. He identified influential Muslim and non-Muslim prisoners who used their influence to keep the peace on the wings. But rather than being “terrorist kingpins”, he says they fitted the profile of the US criminologist Gresham Sykes’s “real man”, a category of prisoner identified in 1958 who is aloof and self-retrained, but who helps to maintain order.
“The emir had admirable traits and was able to make the right decisions that would benefit the stability of the wing. This had to include promoting good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims,” writes Williams in his draft paper.
Similarly, the issue of Islamic conversion in prison is more complex than reports of coercion in the media suggest, says Williams. Some prisoners converted because they felt being part of a larger network would offer them more protection or better access to black market goods; others did so for personal and spiritual exploration, he continues. “Coercion was neither described by converts nor by other Muslim prisoners. There’s also some very positive effects of converting to Islam. One prisoner who had social phobias had these lessened through going to Friday prayers. It got him used to it through the ritual practice.” Williams says the bonds that develop among Muslim inmates are largely dependent on the prison environment, with so-called gangs and emirs tending to emerge in those prisons with heavy-handed security.
Amad has written a guide for probation officers working with young adults and believes that the prison service needs to listen to the experiences of Muslim ex-offenders rather than consulting community leaders. He says: “We can better relate to other young British Muslims because we were born and grew up here. When they hear it from us they don’t have that excuse of ‘what do you know?’”. Mohammed wants criminal justice staff to hear a more accurate narrative about Islam. “If we’re saying that criminal justice professionals are influenced by what they read in the papers or by the general feeling in wider society, then we need to give another story,” he says.
Responding to the latest research, a Ministry of Justice spokesman says: “Islamist extremism is one of the biggest threats facing this country. The MoJ and National Offender Management Service are already taking forward urgent work in this area.” He adds that a summary of the findings of the Gove-commissioned report will be published “in due course”.
David Batty, "Muslims report discrimination in prisons as fear of ‘extremism’ grows" The Guardian UK July 6, 2016
Matilda Battersby, "Hate crime up 42% since Brexit: Stories of casual racism behind the statistics" i-News July 8, 2016