The UK government has blocked a wide-ranging study into the process of prison-based religious conversion despite concerns over the impact of charismatic preachers on radicalising inmates.
Researchers wanted to interview inmates and staff at eight jails to understand the reasons behind conversion to Islam and how the process could be harnessed to reduce offending when they were released.
The study has the backing of experts including Max Hill, a lawyer who independently reviews the UK’s anti-terror laws, and the governors of the jails identified for the study, which included a top-security prison, youth and women’s jails.
Prof Matthew Wilkinson, the lead researcher based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, insisted the planned study was not about radicalisation but believed that authorities were concerned about what researchers might find.
“Just because we are studying Muslims and convert Muslims does not mean that we are studying radicalisation,” he said. “We think that the choice to follow Islam can be rational, positive decision and we want to discover how it can be managed appropriately to help prison governors in their duty to prevent reoffending.”
The research project has been given the go-ahead in Switzerland and France, but UK prison officials were understood to be concerned about the resources required for the three-year study that sought in-depth interviews with dozens of inmates.
Concern about the impact of Muslim conversion and radicalisation in prison has been raised by successive governments and follows research suggesting that the last 15 major terrorist attacks in Europe have had some connection with prison.
The block on the conversion research came despite a report from a government-commissioned report into Islamist extremism in 2016 that found there was a “lack of hard data on conversions and the reasons behind them” for inmates.
The report, by a former prison governor, called for a “comprehensive and coordinated” strategy to monitor the growing problem of extremism, and called for the containment of known extremists in dedicated specialist units at key prisons.
Critics of government policy said that prisons were not doing enough to tackle extremist behaviour before inmates were released. “It’s not about change, it’s about containment,” said Fiyaz Mughal, of Faith Matters, a group which charts anti-Muslim violence in the UK.
The proportion of Muslim prisoners in England and Wales has grown from 7.7 per cent of the prison population to 15.3 per cent in 15 years to 2017.
It has been suggested that inmates have converted to Islam for reasons including protection from gangs, better food and after an enforced period of reflection inside jail.
A prison service spokesperson said: “We receive many requests from academics to conduct research in prisons and have to carefully consider the benefits of their proposals, any legal and ethical issues, and the impact they would have on the Prison Service.”