Government bodies have been reporting the over-representation of Muslims in the prison system for years. According to a report produced by Parliament, while Muslims in Britain represented only 4% of the population in 2012, they formed 13% of all prisoners and this statistic is rising year on year.
Speculation around the causes for this has included generic explanations and crude accusations. Socio-economic disadvantages that are inherent in Muslim communities play part to revealing the reasons behind this statistic, which have been exacerbated by Islamophobia since 9/11. More recently, a report by the Prison Officers Association (POA) has claimed that prison inmates are being bullied into conversion to Islam by Muslim gangs.
While attention on this issue has caused alarm and concern, Rukaiya Jeraj from the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) and campaign manager for their prisons campaign, spoke about how the rate of re-offending rates among the Muslim community is also un-representatively high and that the needs or make-up of this category are not properly addressed.
Regarding the conversion rate of Muslims in prison and it being caused by the influence of gangs, Rukaiya admits that there is a high conversion rate of Muslims in prison and ‘yes those reasons may be true’. However, inmates convert for a variety of reasons, not solely for ‘protection’ or fear of other inmates as claimed by the POA. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands to explore other faiths, some disingenuously convert as inmates perceive Muslims to be getting privileges such as more meals during Ramadan, visits to the Imam, time off for Friday prayer etc. ‘What would be interesting to see is if those same inmates still describe themselves as Muslim six months down the line’. Synonymously, many publicly deny they are Muslim for fear of the stigma attached to this. Fundamentally, however, the problem is the Muslim community is regarded as a large generic group whereas in fact it is a diverse segment of society made up of varying ethnicities and even theological nuances. Rukaiya believes that those figures could be broken down even further to understand what the cultural trends are. Beyond the media furore of high numbers of Muslim prisoners in the UK, what has not been picked up on is the high rate of re-offending among Muslims and this is something MYH has been working on in a bid to fill a gap that no-one else, not least the prison system, is filling.
The National Offender Management System (NOMS) provides theoretical advice for rehabilitation and prevention of re-offending, known as the seven reducing pathways to re-offending. It involves monitoring ex-offenders and working with them to tackle drug and alcohol abuse, improving their basic skills, tackling their attitudes and improving their chances of getting a job. It also means helping them get decent accommodation and working with the children and families of offenders to try and break the cycle of offending.
However, MYH found that many offenders are serving short-term sentences of 14-18 months, which falls below the statutory period where support must be provided. That leaves many prisoners without any support network at all.
“Due to the stigma of going inside, many prisoners’ families don’t keep in contact with them. The family can serve as a vital support network, therefore this has serious repercussions when they are released and forms part of the reason why ex-offenders then go on to re-offend’ says Rukaiya, ‘and the reasons they were inside in the first place have not been addressed.’
Aisha, a 16 year old teenager of Pakistani, Mirpuri background, has first-hand experience of the re-offending cycle as her brother fell victim to the system when he was sentenced to 15 months for actual bodily harm (ABH) in 2006 and then again in 2009. Speaking about her sibling’s experience:
‘When he came out, he had all good intentions to reform – get a job, settle down, keep out of trouble. He even stopped hanging out with his old crew. However, the amount of support he got when he left was minimal – his probation officer saw him occasionally and was helpful but couldn’t really understand what he was going through - inside. He didn’t have many opportunities but he did find a minimum wage gig eventually. His friends got the better of him and kept calling after him and eventually he was back to larking about, talking back to people. The stress of family life: a disabled brother, a broken home and pressure to bring in more money took its toll so he lost it again on someone who p****d him off and he was back inside.’
The external factors there sound fairly generic and according to Javed Khan, CEO of Victim Support, there is no reason to assume that the situation is any different to the disadvantaged white community.
‘The crux of the issues affecting Muslim youth is the poverty of hope in deprived urban areas’, he says, speaking in his capacity as a concerned member of the Pakistani Muslim community and an ex-teacher still troubled with the journey of young people in today’s society. ‘It’s the societal challenge to us all – young kids are attracted by media allure and money and are drawn in to selling drugs and other criminal behaviour for a quick win – it’s the only way they can see a way out for themselves.’ Likewise he believes that the re-offending rates amongst the Muslim community are no more alarming than re-offending rates across the board for those that receive short-term sentences, especially those in the 18-24 age range who fall foul to the prison system again and again until they are delivered with long term sentencing.
However, from MYH’s findings many Muslim prisoners and ex-offenders would appreciate the support once they leave prison as they believe their re-settlement needs are often more difficult than for non-Muslim clients. If not already ostracized, the pressure to reintegrate quickly, from their extended as well as immediate family and community is even greater. Without support it is hard to focus on rehabilitation. In particular to note, converts, prior to sentencing, have not been part of the community and upon release are already marginalized for their criminal past compounding the difficulties in securing employment, finding accommodation and completing the other pathways making resettlement an ordeal that most ex-offenders are unequipped to deal with, generating increasingly high re-offending rates.
A research report produced by MYH and launched in the House of Commons in 2011, showed that the needs of the Muslim community within the prison system and after release are not considered and there is a low level of understanding within it. Many prisoners felt Islam was a positive influence on their lives and reformation process. ‘This influences other prisoners too that want a part of that.’ However, many prison guards felt that those that practiced their faith fervently were leaning towards radicalism. This is a key issue about training and support for staff who need to deliver a more faith and culturally sensitive service and Javed agrees that the POA report should be taken with a pinch of salt:
‘From personal experience there is a serious lack of training amongst prison officers. It is a tough job, they have to look after individuals with the worst type of offending behaviour. You have to be thick skinned and show no weakness. Prison officers therefore live in a different world, their perceptions of what is going on is quite general without the same depth of analysis from outside. I would wonder whether those statements are accurate.’
The negative experiences between Muslim prisoners and prison staff perhaps goes far in explaining the lack of trust in the system.
However both MYH and Javed Khan believe that responsibility also lies with the Muslim community and community leaders (or ‘spiritual guides’ as Javed prefers) that can use their positions of influence to encourage the community to accept ex-offenders and provide them with support. The 2011 report stated that the ability to assess whether other agencies/ parties can address the needs of this category is important in enabling access to services and ‘one stop shop’ services could encourage partnerships and sector-wide coalitions with agencies that share a similar ethos to provide the flexibility in treatment.
The periods where prisoners most need support is six months prior to their release and six months after to help them build bridges. These activities have been taken up by more NGOs recently, including MYH and Mosaic, who provide mentoring- a positive step forward.
Providing statutory support to these organisations and committing funding to the ‘one stop shop’ ideation, would go a long way to ensure Muslim ex-offenders have access to appropriate support upon leaving prison to help them reintegrate into society.