Page last updated at 02:19 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Muslim ex-inmates to get mentors on release

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network

Mohammed said many Muslims felt offenders "made Islam look bad"

A charity is offering one-to-one support for Muslim criminals on their release from jail in a bid to cut reoffending.

The scheme is being run by Mosaic, which runs programmes to support young Muslims living in deprived areas.

A study of Muslim prisoners found many were rejected and stigmatised by their communities on leaving custody.

About 12% of inmates in England and Wales are Muslim, compared with 3% of the general population overall.

No guidance

Twenty-six-year-old Mohammed (not his real name), is serving an indeterminate sentence in Latchmere House prison in south-west London after being convicted of conspiracy to rob.

"You know many families don't actually deal with what their son or daughter has done.

The rest of society, the non-Muslims, they have the same views, that you're a criminal and on top of that you're a Muslim so in their eyes you're twice as dangerous
Mohammed, inmate

"They don't try to understand it, they bring a lot of their own emotions of embarrassment into the way they deal with it, thinking about themselves rather than what's good for their son or daughter."

Mohammed said he started getting into trouble at 18 as he had no guidance or other opportunities, and has been in jail more than once.

He said although all prisoners needed help on release, Muslim offenders trying to re-enter society faced unique problems.

"Parents say things like 'Oh my son… he's been to Pakistan for the last six months', 'he's been studying in Morocco for 18 months', or 'he's just gone off to get married', rather than admitting he has been inside.

"The Muslim community don't want to have anything to do with them because they've come out of prison and they (the community) feel they're making Islam look very bad.

"On the other hand they've got the rest of society - the non-Muslim - they have the same views, that you're a criminal and on top of that you're a Muslim so in their eyes you're twice as dangerous.

"That's because of the moral panic that surrounds some aspects of Islam, committed by a very small minority."

Laila Shannon
Laila Shannon wants to be a mentor after getting in trouble as a teenager

Providing support

In June 2008, 9,795 Muslims (12% of the prison population) were in jail in England and Wales, compared with 4,188 in March 1998.

Mosaic aims to reduce the "disproportionate" number of Muslim inmates. Its mentors will work to get prisoners aged between 16 and 30 back into education or employment, which it says is the key to preventing reoffending.

A study by the Muslim Youth Helpline in 2006 found 35% of the Muslim inmates it surveyed had reoffended.

Mosaic's national operations director, Jonathan Freeman said: "We work very closely with the Muslim Youth Helpline which for many years has had a programme supporting prisoners.

"They undertook a research project (with Muslim inmates) and it was very clear, they said, that those who had reoffended felt one of the biggest reasons was the lack of support they were getting on their release from the community.

"They didn't feel that they could go to their mosque or go to the more established community leaders because there was a particular stigma that was attached to them."

Muslim Laila Shannon, 28, is from Hayes in London and is training to be a mentor.

I hope I can be an example to that person that if they keep trying, they don't just give up on themselves
Laila Shannon, mentor trainee

She left school at 13 and spent years "dealing with a lot of issues and getting into mischief."

Ms Shannon said she was left to her own devices and a lot of her friends ended up in prison or in care.

But she said she now wants to use her life experience and knowledge to give prisoners the guidance she feels was missing from her life at an early age.

"I hope I can be an example to that person that if they keep trying, they don't just give up on themselves - they can achieve something from their life - they can get a job, they can get accommodation, then they can contribute back to society."

'Identity issue'

Mohammed said something needed to change as the number of Muslims in prison was rising fast.

"In this country Muslims have an identity issue, they don't know how to mix that in with whatever culture they've been brought up with here.

"They can't relate to their elders because they speak a totally different language, they have a totally different dress sense.

"They're not communicating with these young people, which is what these young people need and so they get caught up with the wrong influences... bad influences."

The first mentors will start their roles in early 2010 and work with prisoners in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and Leicester.

You can hear more on Asian Network Reports at 1230 and 1800 GMT on the BBC Asian Network on DAB digital radio or online via BBC iplayer .

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