Muslims are significantly over-represented in prison
Last month the Ministry of Justice published a report on ‘the nature of Muslim groups and related gang activity in three high security prisons’. Some media coverage presents Muslim gangs as ‘extremist’ and engaged in terrorist activities, referencing the ‘three musketeers’ –Muslim men who plotted a terrorist attack after apparently having met at HMP Belmarsh. The report recognises that some Muslim prison gang leaders have convictions for terrorist offences, and that some are interested in promoting extremist ideologies. However, it suggests that even these prisoners are primarily motivated by power and criminality. Convicted terrorists comprise just 178 of the 13,008 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales. It is important to resist the conflation of Islam, extremism and prison gangs.
Muslims are significantly overrepresented in British prisons, partly due to demographic factors – their young age profile and relative socio-economic disadvantage. There is growing recognition that Islamophobia has a ‘significant negative impact’ on British Muslims and emerging research suggests that ‘pernicious ideas about Islam’ can impact criminal justice outcomes. The Lammy Review recommended that the Crown Prosecution Service and courts begin recording religion in order to help understand the disproportionate number of Muslims in prison.
The large number of Muslim prisoners means they tend to form more influential groups than prisoners with other shared characteristics. However, the authors of the report are keen to distinguish between Muslim groups and Muslim gangs. What constitutes a ‘gang’ is contested, and it is a racialised term, disproportionately used to refer to black and Asian people. David Lammy has argued that the use of ‘gang’ rather than ‘group’ can therefore be evidence of a subtle form of prejudice. The report’s authors were careful to ask participants about ‘group affiliation’, and only use the term ‘gang’ when participants did so themselves. Only a small minority of Muslim prisoners were found to be involved in gangs – most Muslims associate with each other for companionship and support, and to strengthen their religious practice.
Islam can help prisoners cope with imprisonment and provide a pathway for rehabilitation, yet staff tend to view Islam through the lens of the risk of radicalisation, obscuring the positive role it can play in prisoners’ lives. Muslim prisoners tend to have less favourable outcomes in the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme and adjudication system. They report more negatively on their experience of prison, feeling less safe than their peers and experiencing worse relationships with staff.
The guise of religion
The report suggests that those Muslim prisoners who are involved in gangs tend to be less interested in practising their faith. This is perhaps surprising, given that gang members try to prevent other prisoners from cooking bacon and showering naked – behaviours considered at odds with Islam. However, the authors suggest that although Muslim gangs operate ‘under the guise of religion’, they use Islam as an excuse to exercise control. As one member of staff put it, ‘they are criminal offenders who want power and influence and to be disruptive, and they happen to be Muslim… this is about power, status, criminality, not faith’. This is reminiscent of my own research on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) prisoners. I found that some prisoners used their religion – both Christianity and Islam – to justify engaging in homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. While some prisoners bullied LGBT inmates as a result of queerphobic attitudes, for others sexual and gender diversity simply provided an excuse to victimise. As a member of staff explained, ‘there are certain people that will pick on people regardless of what it is that they’re picking on…It might not be that they’re homophobic, they’re just a bully’.
The Ministry of Justice report notes that most Muslim gang members in high-security prisons have converted to Islam in custody, driven by ‘an anti-establishment agenda’ rather than a commitment to practising Islam. Muslim prison gangs provide people who were involved in gangs in the community with the opportunity to continue victimising others. It’s important to note here that beyond the prison gangs discussed in the report, some prisoners have gang affiliations in the community, resulting in violence between rival gang members.
While some people actively choose to join Muslim prison gangs, others (both Muslim and non-Muslim) are recruited, and sometimes feel compelled to join for fear of their own safety. Once involved, it can be difficult to leave gangs due to the threat of reprisals. In the three high security prisons studied, there were no other notable gangs. However, prison gangs are certainly not a solely Muslim phenomenon. While gangs are much less prevalent and powerful in British than American prisons, some staff consider their existence ‘an inevitability’ due to the nature of the prison environment. People serving long sentences are particularly vulnerable to joining gangs, and given that prison sentences are becoming longer, this is a growing concern. Fear of victimisation also promotes gang involvement, and so the record numbers of self-harm and assault incidents make the current prison system an especially fertile place for gang culture.
The need for support in prison
The report authors emphasise the importance of promoting ‘pro-social’ means of achieving a sense of belonging in order to tackle prison gangs. They assert the need to identify and support particularly vulnerable people who might otherwise seek protection from prison gangs, and suggest that the recent introduction of keyworkers for all prisoners might be beneficial in this respect. They also note the new training for frontline staff in ‘understanding Islam and identification of extremist and other risk behaviours’.
Finally, the authors recommend employing Muslim staff or mentors to support Muslim prisoners, improve their relationships with staff, and combat extremism. Organisations like Muslim Hands already train mentors to befriend Muslim prisoners, supporting them inside prison, and helping them reintegrate upon release. No reference is made to the role that Muslim prison chaplains can play in supporting Muslim prisoners. Research shows they can help officers better understand Islam and lend legitimacy to staff responses to Islamophobic incidents. Imams face the difficult task of maintaining the confidence of both staff and prisoners. They will need additional support if they are to play an active role in challenging prisoners using Islam as a front for gang-related activity. Given that almost 1 in 6 prisoners are Muslim, a nuanced understanding of the challenges facing this group, and how best to support them, is much needed.