June 8, 2010: Working With Muslims in Prison
Prisons have come a considerable distance in meeting the religious needs of Muslims, but are not yet effectively managing a complex and multi-dimensional population, said Dame Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing a thematic report, Muslim prisoners’ experiences.
HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
Muslims in prison are not a homogenous group. They may be Asian, black, mixed-race or white; some are birth Muslims while others have converted. One of their main grievances was that staff tended to think of them as a group, rather than individuals, and too often through the lens of extremism and terrorism, though fewer than 1% of the 10,300 Muslims in prison are there because of terrorist-related offences.
This thematic report is based on in-depth interviews with 164 Muslim prisoners in eight establishments, examination of their wing history sheets and interviews with Muslim chaplains there.
Evidence has also been taken from an analysis of 85 inspection reports and 272 interviews during routine inspections with prisoners about their perceptions of safety. The findings from over 9,000 prisoner surveys (12% completed by Muslims) were also analysed to obtain a better understanding of prisoners’ perceptions and the relative importance of religion and ethnic identity.
Muslim prisoners reported more negatively than other prisoners on their experience, particularly their safety and relationship with staff.
More positively, Muslims were more likely than non-Muslims to report that their faith needs were met, reflecting the strengthened role of Muslim chaplains.
A pervasive theme was the lack of support and training available to staff, outside briefings relating to violent extremism and radicalisation. This meant staff could either back off from confronting challenging behaviour or challenge inappropriately.
The report found that:
- race and ethnicity were important factors: white Muslims felt most positive, while black and mixed heritage Muslims were least positive, and in general more alienated from staff
- across all ethnic groups, Muslims reported more negatively than non-Muslims
- faith played a central role in Muslim prisoners’ lives, much more so than prisons often recognised, and could have a positive and rehabilitative role;
- staff were often suspicious of religious observance, particularly conversion or reversion, although some converts had mixed motives which could include perceived benefits or protection within a group;
- chaplains often lacked the time to provide support and teaching, particularly to converts: a group that could be more easily misled; and sometimes lacked the trust of alienated prisoners.
Chief Inspector Anne Owers said:
"It would be naïve to deny that there are, within the prison population, Muslims who hold radical extremist views, or who may be attracted to them for a variety of reasons. But that does not argue for a blanket security-led approach to Muslim prisoners in general. The National Offender Management Service must develop a strategy, with support and training, for effective staff engagement with Muslims as individual prisoners with specific risks and needs, rather than as part of a separate and troubling group.
"Without that, there is a real risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that the prison experience will create or entrench alienation and disaffection, so that prisons release into the community young men who are more likely to offend, or even embrace extremism."