The supposed neutrality of the prison service in France towards the ethnic and religious backgrounds of prisoners is widely blamed by Muslim inmates as a prime cause of racist and discriminatory treatment, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC.
In contrast, the fact that Christian chaplaincy has been a central feature of prisons in England and Wales for more than 200 years has created opportunities for religious activities from which Muslims have increasingly come to benefit, says a study led by Professors Daniele Joly and Jim Beckford of the University of Warwick.
Professor Joly said: “We might expect that French prisons, as institutions of a religiously neutral republic, would offer better treatment to Muslims than those of England and Wales, where the Church of England and other mainstream Christian denominations have considerable influence. We found that this was not so.
“The French state strives towards not only the legal equality of all citizens but also their assimilation into a single, indivisible culture. So, religious or ethnic minorities get very little official recognition.
“Britain, however, tends to favour integration of ethnic or religious minorities into a ‘community of communities’, fostering diversity as a basis for social cohesion. The development of facilities for the 5,500 Muslim prisoners in our prisons flows from such policies.”
The study says the UK’s almost two million Muslims appear to be nearly three times over-represented in prisons. However, the statistics conceal the high number of foreign nationals registered as of that faith.
There are no official statistics in France about religion, but informal estimates agree that Muslims—about five million in all—are heavily over-represented there. Again, however, the proportion of foreign nationals is thought to be high.
Muslim inmates in both countries had deep-seated concerns over not receiving halal food. In Britain, the situation was significantly better, but there were still allegations that supposedly halal food was suspect.
There was also irritation that sharing cells with non-Muslims, particularly when toilets were not separated from the rest of the cell, offended Muslim notions of hygiene and decency.
However, while Muslim prisoners tend to feel that Islam is despised in France, in England and Wales they were at least aware that official policies show respect for their religion, even if not always implemented to their satisfaction.
Provision for religious activity in French gaols depends heavily on voluntary efforts and meagre resources from the public purse. Muslims say the availability of imams and opportunities for collective prayer vary widely and are rarely adequate.
In some cases, absence of qualified imams or Muslim visitors in France allows prisoners with extremist views to exercise undue influence.
While opportunities for collective worship are patchy and poor in French prisons, they are extensive and improving in England and Wales. Publicly funded services include the presence of 17 full-time and 121 occasional Muslim chaplains. Muslims in French gaols were particularly outspoken about racism from prison officers and other prisoners.
In England and Wales there is extensive use of religious and ethnic categories in analysing the prison population, making provision for minorities, and framing regulations against discrimination.
Nevertheless, Muslim inmates here report incidents of racism and anti-Islamic sentiment among prison officers. At the same time, they are well aware that officers can be severely punished for overt racism.