Britain's jail strategy 'may fuel extremism'

A report calls for a policy of staff engagement with Muslim prisoners in the UK as individuals rather than as a group of potential terrorists.

A Muslim inmate on the balcony outside his cell in Wandsworth prison.
HMP Wandsworth in South West London was built in 1851 and is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners.
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LONDON // Muslim inmates are being driven into the arms of gangs of Islamist extremists in Britain's jails because of the treatment they receive from warders, the government's chief inspector of prisons has warned.

Dame Anne Owers wrote in a report to ministers that the tendency of prison officers to lump all Muslims together and treat them as potential terrorists fosters alienation and becomes "a self-fulfilling prophecy". Her report, Muslim Prisoners' Experiences, says: "It would be naive 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." She wrote that the National Offender Management Service (Noms) 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."

Her warning comes after mounting concern over the extremist views of many Muslim gangs that operate and, in many cases, control the growing prison population of young men mainly with origins in the Indian subcontinent. Three years ago, the British prison service began training staff to identify and respond to signs of radicalisation among inmates. Dame Anne's report says that although such a move might have been necessary, it had had the side effect of encouraging prison officers to view all Muslims as "potential extremists" even though fewer than one per cent of the 10,300 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales have terrorism convictions.

Prison inspectors found that Muslim inmates generally had a more negative experience of prison than others, often because of fears for their safety. Based on interviews with more than 150 Muslim inmates, the report says the problem is most acute in high-security prisons where three-quarters of Muslims interviewed said they felt unsafe, a feeling strongly linked to mistrust of the staff. Dame Anne said the tendency was for prison officers to treat Muslims as "a homogenous group". Consequently, she said, warders failed to interact or engage with the Muslim inmates on an individual level. One positive finding from the report was that the growing network of Islamic clerics serving the prison population had resulted in Muslims being more likely to have their faith needs met than other prisoners.

The prisoners also said Islam often played a positive and rehabilitative role in their lives behind bars, despite staff being suspicious of religious acts. The report says inmates often join Muslim gangs to obtain support and protection in a group with a powerful identity and for material advantages. One prisoner told inspectors: "I've got loads of close brothers here. They share with you; we look out for each other."

Some inmates were even found to have converted to Islam because the halal food on offer in all British prisons was better than the mainstream menu. These inmates, known as "convenience Muslims", include some who have converted because they got extra time off to observe Friday prayers. Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, agreed that "too often" Muslim prisoners were regarded as extremists in the making. "Without proper support, all prisoners, regardless of their race or religious background, are likely to become disaffected from society."

However, Phil Wheatley, the director general of Noms, said "considerable progress" has been made in meeting the religious needs of Muslim prisoners. "It is not right to say that Noms has a blanket security-led approach to Muslim prisoners. "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 practise of faith in prison is supported."

In little more than 15 years, the number of Muslims in prisons in England and Wales has quadrupled. About one in eight of inmates in the country's jails are Muslim compared with about one in 30 in the population as a whole.