Earlier this month, it was announced that Tommy Robinson is to face a fresh hearing on contempt of court charges after filming and broadcasting footage of people involved in a criminal trial. Many of those who support the former English Defence League leader believe this is part of a deliberate ploy by the authorities to get him locked up, in what the likes of InfoWars have referred to as a "Muslim prison" in the UK – a turn of events that would, they believe, put his life at risk. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has claimed that Muslim gangs effectively rule the British prison system. I got in touch with Dana, who works as a guard at a prison with one of the highest proportions of Muslim inmates in the country. Here’s what she had to say about her experience of so-called prison gangs.
First of all, I’d like to point out that I’m a fair and unbiased person, and that irrespective of who Tommy Robinson is and what he stands for, if he was telling the truth, I’d say that he was telling the truth. I’ve also got no interest in becoming involved in the ‘culture wars’ or getting into debates about whether he’s far-right or not. All I’m bothered about is addressing misconceptions of the British prison system.
I’ve never personally come across a single Islamic extremist in prison, let alone entire gangs of them. I’ve heard the occasional story from members of staff about inmates who have tried to force their religion on others, but that kind of thing isn’t commonplace in the jails that the majority of regular, run-of-the-mill criminals are housed in. The situation is slightly different in high security prisons, which are reserved for inmates who are either highly dangerous or classed as escape risks. Gangs of Islamic extremists are far more powerful and prevalent in these facilities, but this type of jail only makes up around 5 percent of the prison system. It’s unlikely Tommy Robinson would find himself in a high security setting given the nature of his crime. There aren’t too many people in category A prisons for contempt of court!
Terrorists and hate-preachers tend to be kept in high security jails due to the risk of them radicalising other inmates, so extremism comes with the territory. 'Muslim gangs' by no means rule the roost though, as there are other groups who oppose them – for example, Death Before Dishonour, a gang that was set up by inmates looking to protect themselves against Islamic extremists but has since been accused of carrying out attacks on regular Muslims. They’ve got quite a few murderers in their ranks along with other extremely violent inmates, which makes them a formidable force.
On most British prison wings, both anti-Muslim groups and Islamic extremists are marginal players when it comes to the gang scene. Prison gangs here aren’t typically based on religion or ethnicity; they tend to centre on a specific city, area or postcode. It’s common to have a mix of Christians and Muslims in the same group, and most wings aren’t divided along religious lines. That’s not to say there isn’t occasionally some degree of sectarian or ethnic tension, but it isn’t a major cause of violence.
There has been some tension between Muslim and non-Muslim groups within lower security prisons, but it isn’t a case of Islamists subjugating the rest of the wing. Every type of gang that you could possibly imagine exists behind bars, and there’s usually no clear dominant force. There’s a conflict currently taking place in prisons in the northwest of England between groups of Muslims and a gang known as the Piranhas, but it’s unclear whether it’s the result of extremism. It might just be the case that the gang consists of Islamophobes who are attacking random Muslims. It’s also important to bear in mind that this is one of thousands of conflicts going on in prisons all over the country for a plethora of different reasons. There are probably more fights caused by people supporting different football teams or being from rival estates than there are over religious differences.
As for Tommy’s belief that he’ll be at risk of being attacked behind bars, if he was placed in the mainstream prison population it would be a very real risk. He’s regarded as a bigot by the majority of the Islamic community, which could lead to him being targeted by Muslim inmates. It’s also possible that he’d have a price put on his head, which would mean he’d be in danger of being assaulted by non-Muslim inmates as well. This could be initiated either by others within the prison system or his enemies on the outside. Given that he’s had several Osman warnings [the name given to the letters sent out by British police to those who’ve had threats made against their life], there are clearly people who wish him harm, and prison is filled with inmates who would be up for inflicting it. There’s no shortage of desperate drug addicts behind bars who are willing to carry out brutal acts of aggression towards people they haven’t personally actually got anything against in return for some spice or a bag of heroin.
The violence towards Tommy could take many forms. Given that there are only around six murders per year in British prisons, there’s a low chance he’d be killed but he could well be seriously injured. It’s unlikely it’d be done by members of an organised gang of Islamic extremists, though; it would most likely be a single actor or a small group of lads. Tommy would also have the option of either being put in segregation for his own protection or placed on the vulnerable prisoners’ wing, which houses informants, sex offenders and others who are at risk of being assaulted within the general prison population. This would greatly reduce his risk of being attacked.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.