In December 2008 there were 9,975 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales, equivalent to 12% of the prison population. This represented a considerable increase on the 5% in 1994 and 8% in 2004 and was more than four times the proportion of professing Muslims at the 2001 census.
Muslims constituted the biggest faith group in prison in 2008 after Anglicans and Catholics, although all were dwarfed by those without any religion. The current estimate for Muslim prisoners is 10,300.
The more youthful profile of Muslims and their disproportionate concentration in lower socio-economic groups partly explain this over-representation of Muslims in prison, since criminality is especially associated with the young and with economic deprivation.
Numbers apart, there has been considerable public focus on these Muslim prisoners as potential extremists and on prisons as the place where they may become radicalized, often through conversion to Islam.
But what is the reality? In an attempt to find some answers, Her Majesty’s (independent) Inspectorate of Prisons has researched and today published a 116-page thematic report on Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, which is available to download from:
The evidence base for the report derives from a wide variety of quantitative and qualitative sources. Among the former are surveys completed by 9,027 prisoners (including 1,049 Muslims) between September 2006 and April 2009, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with 164 Muslim male prisoners.
Detailed statistics from the surveys, covering answers to 200 questions by religion and ethnicity, comprise more than half the document (Appendix IX).
The headline finding is that Muslim prisoners report more negatively on their prison experience, and particularly their safety and relationship with staff, than other prisoners. Differential perceptions are widest in high security dispersal prisons, where the focus on security and extremism is sharpest.
Race and ethnicity were important factors in Muslim prisoners’ negative experiences and perceptions, especially since Muslims were over four times more likely than non-Muslims to be from a minority ethnic group.
However, within each of the four ethnic groups covered (Asian, black, white and mixed heritage), Muslims reported significantly less positively than non-Muslims, suggesting that religion adds a further clear layer of perceived disadvantage.
One of the main grievances of Muslim prisoners is that prison staff members have a tendency to think of them as a homogeneous group, rather than individuals, and too often through the lens of extremism and terrorism, although less than 1% of them are actually detained for terrorist-related offences.
In her summation, the Chief Inspector of Prisons agrees that the security agenda is often better resourced, better understood and more prevalent in prison than concerns for diversity. She urges a better balance, to avoid ‘a real risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that the prison experience will create or entrench alienation and disaffection’ among Muslims.
On the positive side, Muslims were more likely than non-Muslims to report their faith needs were met in prisons, reflecting the strengthening of the role of Muslim chaplains. Indeed, more Muslim prisoners than non-Muslims felt their religious beliefs were respected and that they could speak to a religious leader from their faith in private.
30% of the 164 interviewees were converts to Islam, some evidently attracted by perceptions of the material advantages from identifying as Muslim in prison.
This has naturally been picked up by the media, prompting headlines such as ‘Lags Go Muslim for Better Food’ (The Sun) and ‘Prisoners Convert to Islam to Win Perks and Get Protection from Powerful Muslim Gangs’ (Daily Mail).