Page last updated at 18:34 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

Growing fears over Muslim prison 'gangs'

The Muslim prison population in England and Wales has sharply increased in recent years. The BBC's Ushma Mistry hears from former inmates and prison officers who claim gangs of Muslim prisoners are an increasingly powerful force.

"Muslims run it. Muslims run the prisons and there's nothing the screws can do about it. For a Muslim you'd say it's good but for a non-Muslim, it's very, very bad," a former inmate called Jay says.

'Jay' has spent many years inside various prisons in the South of England

It is a claim which is backed by former prison officers and other inmates.

Jay, 24, is a Muslim and has been in and out of prison for most of his life. He openly admits to helping to convert non-Muslim inmates to Islam and has meted out violence against anyone who dares to "disrespect" his religion.

He first went to prison when he was 15 and said there were hardly any Muslims inmates back then.

"At the beginning not many knew about Islam. There weren't many converts. The mosque was empty, but nowadays jails are run mostly by the Muslims," he said.

"There are certain brothers that convert purely on the basis that they read Islam and they want to believe in something that does good for them. Then other people because they want to be looked after.

"I've been in jail five times and on my last occasion, I've seen jails being run by Muslim inmates.

"Muslim prayers on a Friday are very, very busy. In some prisons there's no space. In one jail I was in, they do the prayers in two sessions because there's no space."

Intimidating

Muslims represent 12% (9,795) of the prison population in England and Wales, according to the latest available figures from 2008. This has risen by 50% over five years.

MUSLIM PRISONER POPULATION
2008: 9,795 (12% of total prison population in England and Wales)
2007: 8,864 (11%)
2006: 8,243 (11%)
2005: 7,246 (10%)
2004: 6,571 (9%)
2003: 6,136 (8%)
Source: Ministry of Justice

In some high security prisons, the figures are well above average.

In 2008, Muslim prisoners accounted for a third (34%) of prisoners in HMP Whitemoor, in March, Cambridgeshire, and about a quarter (24%) of inmates in HMP Long Lartin, in Evesham, Worcestershire.

Speaking anonymously, a former prison officer, who worked at HMP Long Lartin, told the Donal MacIntyre programme about cases where non-Muslim prisoners were seriously assaulted and intimidated for refusing to abide by unofficial rules imposed by Muslim gangs, about eating pork or listening to Western music.

"Muslim gangs was something I was very concerned about - the situation changed where underworld gangsters who used to keep discipline and order were no longer in charge in the prison," she said.

"The younger guys, who were being forced to convert, were doing it more for protection from a Muslim gang rather than follow the faith - most of them weren't interested in the faith.

It is ridiculous to suggest that any gang 'controls' a prison
Prison Service spokesperson

"I knew one lad quite well who was approached by the radical Muslims, and he changed. He just seemed very frightened all the time.

"He used to be forced to pray at certain times and I know for a fact they would be woken in the middle of the night to pray.

"He even grew a long beard even though he didn't want to. I asked him why he grew the beard and he said 'It's survival miss, survival'".

Physical retribution

Colin Moses, national chairman of prison workers' trade union, the POA, said not all Muslims in prison were in gangs, but acknowledged there was a growing problem.

Colin Moses, national chairman, POA
Colin Moses argues prison staff need more resources to tackle the problem

"People are being radicalised, forcibly radicalised by these gangs. We see it as a real danger, now and for the future of prisons," he said.

And, he pointed out that those who were in gangs or converted to Islam often did it to carry out criminal activities.

"As the Muslim population grows, the gangs are becoming more and more prevalent by the week and they fight to take control of the drug trade and the dealing of mobile phones in prison.

"This will make our prisons even more violent," he added.

Violence is something familiar to former inmate Jay, who admits to physical retribution on fellow inmates who he deemed to have disrespected Islam.

"It hurts as a Muslim to have someone disrespect my religion. If we deal with him one time, with violence, and show him what time it is, he will never disrespect our religion again," he said.

He also believes prison officers have much to learn about Islam.

"Islam is a very sensitive matter. And the screws don't understand that. I respect what the screws do but they've got to understand our ways, where we're coming from," he added.

'Wealth of experience'

POA chairman Colin Moses recognises there are some shortcomings in prison staff's understanding of Muslim inmates.

"We must be given the resources to face these gangs, and one of those must be a greater knowledge of the Muslim religion," he said.

"And we must see, I believe, a greater input of Muslim prison officers - we have very few and in some prisons none whatsoever.

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"Currently I believe there is a gulf in that knowledge base, and there should be an attempt to eradicate this by the Ministry of Justice."

In a statement, a Prison Service spokesman said the allegations made about Muslim gangs were unsubstantiated.

"It is ridiculous to suggest that any gang 'controls' a prison," he said.

He went on to say: "The Prison Service has a wealth of experience in dealing with gang activity and managing prisoners who form gangs.

"It is important not to conflate security issues with the prisoners' religious identities. 'Muslim gangs' will be treated like other gangs in relation to security concerns.

"Violence is not acceptable in prison and any incidents will be investigated thoroughly and dealt with accordingly, with support from the police where appropriate.

"We have a programme of work in place to respond to the risks of all forms of radicalisation and extremism in prisons (not only al-Qaeda influenced extremism).

"This work will continue to develop to support prisons in tackling this behaviour."


Listen to the full report on the Donal MacIntyre programme on BBC 5 live on Sunday, 14 March at 19.30 GMT. You can also download the free podcast or listen via the BBC iPlayer. You can contact the programme by emailing donal@bbc.co.uk.



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SEE ALSO
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20 Jun 08 |  Cambridgeshire
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25 May 08 |  UK

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