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Muslims in prison - time for a wake-up call

By Raheel Mohammed:

A former prisoner officer once described to me how, during the fasting month of Ramadan, she would wake up Muslim prisoners for an early breakfast because they did not have access to alarm clocks (not necessarily available in some prisons). The prisoners trusted her to do the right thing. She had not received any training on the religious needs of prisoners but had learnt on the job that certain rituals matter a lot to Muslims—especially during the holy month. But not all Muslim prisoners have been quite so fortunate. She went on to describe how other prison officers deliberately didn’t wake up Muslim prisoners during Ramadan because they had decided that the men were unlikely to keep the fasts.

As Ramadan starts this week, the alarm clock story is indicative of the discrimination Muslims face in the criminal justice system. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of Muslims in prison: they now make up 17 per cent of prisoners—a figure that has doubled over the last 15 years—when they only make up five per cent of the general population. (It is important to note that only one per cent of Muslims in prison are convicted of terrorism charges.)

Our work at Maslaha, a charity that works on addressing inequalities faced by Muslim communities, has enabled us to hear directly from the prisoners themselves. The absence of their voices in mainstream conversation makes it easier to caricature them: the radical Muslim; the terrorist Muslim; the extremist Muslim. All the while there is scant evidence to back up these impressions. As one man who had been in prison told us: “As a Muslim person, praying five times a day in congregation is normal and it happens every day, every year, all up and down the country, all the over the world. But when it happens in a prison environment, and you’ve got a bunch of Muslim lads in one cell, it starts setting off alarms in the prison staff—what are they up to, what’s going on?”

We had a number of conversations with Muslim men who have been banned from Friday prayers for minor infractions of prison rules: they told us that the prison authorities knew how much such prayers meant to them, and would deliberately use the threat of denying them their religious freedom as leverage. As one said: “They know that’s the one thing that will get to a Muslim, if he’s not going to get to Friday prayers. That’s their best threat.”

The problem is reinforced by a government which has refused to collect the necessary data—something recommended by the 2017 David Lammy report into racial injustice in the prison system. What evidence there is shows a harsh picture. The Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report consistently shows that Muslim people in prison disproportionately experience more negative outcomes than non-Muslims. This includes staff not treating them with respect, or not getting proper attention when they ask for help. Some of the examples are shocking: from having their Qurans and prayer mats desecrated by both prison officers and fellow prisoners, to enduring abuse from officers and fellow prisoners such as being called a “terrorist”; to being disproportionately on the end of PAVA spray (a painful incapacitant used by prison officers). These are the types of behaviours that go unchallenged.

For the prison authorities, a good Muslim is one who is controlled within the parameters of what is deemed acceptable. The Incentives and Privileges scheme is intended to give prison governors levers that will encourage good behaviour. Research has shown that black and Asian prisoners are more often likely to receive punitive measures, while white prisoners are more likely to be rewarded.

But why are Muslims specifically suffering? Perhaps because in the eyes of the criminal justice system, Islamic religiosity is incompatible with good behaviour—and frequently linked to extremism. “There must be something that is wrong in the religion,” said one non-Muslim prisoner during a focus group about why Muslim men weren’t accessing a mental health support service. The prison officer present nodded in agreement.

Being punished for being “too Muslim” is also a wider problem. Prevent, which seeks to root out extremism before it happens, legally requires public sector workers, doctors, teachers and social care workers to work in what is sinisterly described as “the pre-criminal space.” And again, it is Muslims who have been disproportionally targeted. Prevent has led to children as young as four being referred because they might be exhibiting extremist tendencies.

And this is the parallel with the prison system. For any other religion, increased religiosity would be seen as a positive part of “rehabilitation.” But not if it’s Islam. One prisoner related the following anecdote: “This is the first prison I’ve been to in my life and this is in my first few weeks. They gave me another nicking, saying I was forcing prisoners to attend Friday prayers, that I was bullying basically innit. And basically what had happened was I talking to this brother from Brum, who wanted to know more about Islam, and I told him to go to the office to write his name so he can come to Friday prayers. And they did me for that.”

These incidents point to a larger problem of systemic racism that forces Muslims in prison to create their own communities in order to protect each other and maintain their dignity. This Ramadan, such informal networks of support have all but been dismantled as prisoners are confined to their cells because of the pandemic. The mental toll cannot be underestimated. Prisoners are rarely given much public sympathy and those from unpopular minorities even less so. But there is a scandal here for those who allow themselves to see it.

Read more about Maslaha’s work on Muslims in the criminal justice system here

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