The security-led approach by prison authorities towards Muslim prisoners has led to victimisation and a disproportionate use of segregation and restraint, according to a new report.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, says blanket treatment of the Muslim prison population has focused largely on efforts to limit the spread of radicalisation and violent extremism, despite the fact that of the 10,300 Muslims currently in prison, less than one per cent are there on terror-related charges.
The report, entitled Muslim prisoners’ experiences, based on interviews with 164 Muslim prisoners in eight prisons along with prisoner surveys and inspection surveys from the past three years, reveals that Muslim prisoners’ frustration at being stereotyped as extremists was ‘the single most prominent theme’ to emerge from interviews. They were also more likely than non-Muslims to report feeling unsafe and psychologically insecure because of how they were perceived by staff and other prisoners. Furthermore, wider public perception about Islam, and specifically, the links made between Muslims and terrorism in the media, was perceived widely by prisoners to have had a knock-on effect on their treatment in prison by staff.
While the report recognises that Muslims in prison are ‘far from a homogenous group’, Muslims were far more likely than other groups to report victimisation and intimidation by staff, particularly on the basis of their ethnicity and religion. This was especially pronounced in high security prisons, where two thirds of Muslim prisoners felt they had been victimised by staff.
The report also laid to rest the widely held misconception that prisoners are being forcibly converted to Islam. At one dispersal prison, staff expressed concern that Muslim gangs were pressuring non-Muslims to convert and adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam; none of the prisoners interviewed offered the view that they had been coerced into converting by other prisoners.
Arguing for a more concerted and centralised effort for staff to engage with Muslim prisoners and foster an improved understanding of religious practice and values, and of the needs of the Muslim prison population, the report claims that many of those surveyed found their religious rights to be respected, but misunderstood. Devout Islam and violent extremism were too often inextricably linked in the eyes of the prison staff, leading to a far more intensive scrutiny of Muslims than non-Muslims, especially during observance, such as Friday prayers. Indeed, prayer has begun to be exploited as a behaviour management tool – in one prison, the practice of banning prisoners from Friday prayers for poor behaviour has been formalised with the use of ‘exclusion from worship forms’.
While staff remained suspicious of religious observance, it is clear that from the prisoners’ point of view, faith has been central to prison life, often playing a positive and rehabilitative role. This is what encapsulates the gulf of what the report calls ‘misunderstanding’ between prison staff and Muslim prisoners. It is for this reason that the report rightly warns of the potential for alienation and disaffection amongst Muslim prisoners.
Download a copy of the Muslim Prisoners Experiences: A thematic view here (pdf file, 514kb)