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Racist Guards and the Myth of Radicalization: What It's Like Being a Muslim in British Prison

If you're a Muslim in the UK, there's a good chance that at some point you will end up in jail. We asked a Muslim ex-con what to expect.

by Maya Oppenheim
Oct 29 2015, 4:35pm

Photo via Flickr user miss_millions

Earlier this year, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act was passed in the UK, and as part of its far reaching powers, prisons—alongside the NHS, schools, and local authorities—have been placed under a statutory duty to prevent extremist radicalization taking place within their walls. David Cameron has decided to do away with "kid gloves," and has promised to tackle Islamic extremism in the UK's main institutions.

Meanwhile, last week, the EU Commission hosted its first ever high-level conference on radicalization in prisons. Pushing the issue further up the European security agenda, it looked at ways to detect radicalization in prisons and improve risk assessment of inmates. It pointed to the UK as the model to follow.

In case you weren't aware, the number of Muslim prisoners has more than doubled in a decade. To put this into context, one in seven prisoners in the UK is Muslim, whereas just one in 20 of the general population is Muslim. As you'd expect, this increase has led to an onslaught of Daily Mail headlines citing prisons as self-styled hotbeds of radicalism.

But when you look beyond the fear mongering, you are faced with a very different picture. Just one percent of Muslim prisoners has been convicted of a terrorist-related offense. In spite of this, Muslim prisoners continue to be viewed with suspicion via the lens of extremism and terrorism.

Jon Ali* has experienced Islamophobia in prison first-hand. "A lot of the prison guards were racist to Muslims. There was a point when my cell was getting searched on a weekly basis and that was for no reason other than the fact I was Muslim. Other people weren't getting searched regularly."

"They had no reason to search me whatsoever. I wasn't up to anything. It was crazy. They'd check everything and even put sniffer dogs on the bed. It was always early in the morning, they would burst in, so whenever I was chilling in bed, I'd feel on edge."

Charged for robbery, Ali spent a total of one year and 11 months in prison. And for much of his sentence, he worked as the head halal chef. "Before me, there wasn't a halal chef. Although a lot of the Muslim prisoners had written and complained about this, it got ignored for ages and ages," he recalls. "But after the Lee Rigby murder happened, requests from the Muslim population finally started getting listened to—the officers were on their toes thinking there was going to be a riot any day, thinking the Muslims were going to kick off. They thought it might have a domino effect. It was ridiculous. There was obviously no reason for there to be a riot."

Throughout his time inside, Ali says he was routinely treated with suspicion by the guards. "You'd often be searched on your way in and out of the mosque. If you walk into a church service in prison, you've got a handful of officers to make sure there isn't a fight, but if you go into the mosque on a Friday, you'll be surrounded by officers the entire time."

"You'll be chatting to someone and there'll be an officer standing behind your shoulder listening. They were always the biggest, butchest ones, too. You'd never see those officers on the wing."

But according to Ali, Islamophobia was less prevalent amongst inmates. "To my knowledge, the prisoners weren't racist because they couldn't be. At the end of the day, there were a lot of Muslim prisoners in jail," he explains. "Saying that, I watched a documentary on Britain First recently and there were two people I recognized from prison standing outside the mosque shouting abuse. Even though there had been none of that when they were in prison."

According to Ali, a lot of his misconceptions about prison were proved wrong once inside. "You hear all these things about how they make people convert in prison but it's complete and utter bullshit. Even if you want to convert, it's a lengthy process. You have to talk to a Muslim on the wing, who then has to refer you to the Imam."

Despite enhanced security and suspicion, it's worth noting that in the whole time Ali was in jail, he says he didn't meet one person convicted for a terrorist offense. While this might sound surprising, it is less so when you consider that there are just 104 Muslims serving sentences for terrorism-related offenses out of a total prison population of 86,107.

Working as the head halal chef had both its perks and downsides. "I used to wake up at 6 AM, drink a coffee, and get unlocked before anyone else was awake. But the job had its stresses," he pauses. "Before I started, they said it wasn't going to be an easy job. I was in one of the biggest prisons in the UK and I was in charge of feeding thousands of people. There was a lot of pressure."

It goes without saying that life in prison is particularly hard for Muslims. The disproportionate representation of young Muslim prisoners in the UK is now greater than in the US. According to a report from the Young Review at the end of last year, Muslims from all ethnic groups are more negative about prison life than non-Muslims. Moreover, Asian inmates are more likely to be the victims of other prisoners' racially motivated or aggravated incidents compared to other ethnic minority groups.

According to the report: "Nearly all of the offenders we met with said that they experienced differential treatment, either in decisions made about their regimes while in prison or as a result of the attitudes of staff and other prisoners, due to their race, ethnicity, or faith. Black prisoners felt that they were stereotyped as drug dealers, and Muslim prisoners stigmatized as extremists."

The situation is even bleaker for Muslim children in young offenders institutions. For one, the proportion of Muslims is higher—22 percent of children imprisoned in young offenders are Muslims. What's more, a staggering 42 percent of Muslim children don't know where they will live on release compared to a quarter of non-Muslims.

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Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust argues that, "In our overcrowded, under-resourced prisons, the risk is one of alienation and lack of hope rather than extremism itself. Though one may lead to the other."

"A tiny minority of Muslim prisoners are serving sentences for terrorism related offenses," she explains. "For prison staff concerned about the risks of radicalization in custody, it would be wise to focus on the ordinary things that enable people to return to their communities and lead responsible lives on release. These are family support and a sense of belonging, having somewhere safe to live, and finding work and a living wage."

This leads us to the question of why there are disproportionate numbers of Muslims in prison in the first place. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that over 40 percent of British Muslims of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnic origin live in poverty, compared with just 14 percent of white people. Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that young Muslim men are subject to the constant scrutiny of surveillance as soon as they hit puberty. Statistically speaking, they are far more likely to be stopped and searched on the street and thus more likely to get dragged into the criminal justice system in the first place.

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Ishtiaq Ahmed, the coordinator of Bradford Council of Mosques, argues that the Muslim prison population is ultimately growing because of "Islamophobia and deep-rooted mistrust of the Muslim community." Having worked closely with Muslim offenders and completed research on this issue, he has first-hand experience with the problem.

"If you are a judge or a jury who perceives Muslims to be a troublesome element in society, it is likely that these prejudices will have an impact on legal decisions," Ishtiaq argues. "As a community, Muslims always have to prove our innocence, our law-abidingness. It's not that we're innocent until guilty; instead we are guilty until proven innocent. We are under the microscope as a community, particularly young people."

So like most things, can it all be traced back to race and racism? After all, Islamophobia is arguably the most prevalent and accepted form of racism in Europe today. But while most of us associate Islamophobia with that unhinged, crazy person shouting racist slurs on the night-bus, in reality it is far subtler than that. Deeply embedded in the public imagination, it functions throughout the police and the criminal justice system.

Regrettably, Islamophobia is not just the preserve of far-right white, male skinhead Britain First fascists. Instead, it comes from a far wider cross-section of our society. According to the police, hate crimes against Muslims have increased by 70 percent in London in the last year. To put this into historical context, currently 80 percent of British Muslims have experienced discrimination, whereas in the late 90s, only 45 percent had. In other words, anti-Muslim sentiment is not just multiplying but intensifying.

To make matters worse, in the secure and punitive nature of the prison environment, anti-Muslim sentiment is exacerbated. In turn, the experience of racism in prison can interfere with rehabilitation and reintegration into wider society. Instead of returning reformed, they may well leave angry and disillusioned.

*Jon Ali's name has been changed to protect his identity.

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