Prisoners Convert to Islam for Jail Perks

Richard Ford, Times of London, June 8, 2010

Inmates are converting to Islam in order to gain perks and the protection of powerful Muslim gangs, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warns today.

Dame Anne Owers says that some convicted criminals are taking up the religion in jail to receive benefits only available to practising Muslims.

The number of Muslim prisoners has risen dramatically since the mid-1990s–from 2,513 in 1994, or 5 per cent of the population, to 9,795 in 2008, or 11 per cent. Staff at top-security prisons and youth jails have raised concerns about the intimidation of non-Muslims and possible forced conversions.

Dame Anne’s report, Muslim Prisoners’ Experiences, published today, says that, although several high-profile terrorists have been jailed recently, fewer than 1 in 100 Muslim inmates have been convicted of terrorism.

She says that prison staff are suspicious about those practising or converting to the faith and warns that treating Muslim inmates as potential or actual extremists risks radicalising them. The report says: “Many Muslim prisoners stressed the positive and rehabilitative role that Islam played in their lives, and the calm that religious observance could induce in a stressed prison environment. This was in marked contrast to the suspicion that religious observance, and particularly conversion or reversion, tended to produce among staff.”

All prisons offer a halal menu, which some inmates see as better than the usual choices. Muslims are excused from work and education while attending Friday prayers. Some converts, who are known as “convenience Muslims”, admitted that they had changed faith because they got more time out of the cells to go to Friday prayers. One quoted in the report said: “Food good too, initially this is what converted me.”

In some of the most secure jails, the size of the Muslim population is well above average. Two years ago, Muslim inmates accounted for a third of prisoners in Whitemoor, Cambridgeshire, and a quarter of inmates in Long Lartin in Worcestershire.

The report says that inmates converted after learning about Islam from other inmates or their family, to obtain support and protection in a group with a powerful identity and for material advantages. One inmate quoted in the report said: “I’ve got loads of close brothers here. They share with you, we look out for each other.”

Muslim prisoners tended to report more negatively on their prison experience and were also more likely to fear for their own safety or complain of problems in their relations with staff. In high-security prisons, three-quarters of Muslims said they felt unsafe.

Dame Anne said that unless staff engaged effectively with them there was “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”.

Tom Robson, vice-chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association, said that some impressionable prisoners were converting because they wanted status and protection. “What we have got at the moment is an upward trend,” he said. “It is worrying.”

Phil Wheatley, director-general of the National Offender Management Service, said: “Our clear policy is that all prisoners are treated with respect and decency, recognising the diverse needs of a complex prison population, and that the legitimate practice of faith in prison is supported.”

Dame Anne’s study was based on 85 jail inspection reports and in-depth interviews with 164 Muslim prisoners in eight jails. It follows reports of Muslim inmates seeking to assert their authority on the wings of prisons.

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