ON THE FRONTLINE: Muslim men in Prison

ON THE FRONTLINE: Muslim men in Prison

Raheel Mohammed

There is a story about an alarm clock which captures perfectly the experience of Muslim men in the criminal justice system. This story shows the effects of power and ignorance in the prison system and what it means to have your basic human rights denied.

A former prisoner officer described to me how during Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam, she would wake Muslim prisoners up to fast because in this prison clocks were not allowed. They relied on her and trusted her to do that. This former prison officer who had not received any training on the religious needs of prisoners learnt on the job the rituals and processes that could matter so much to a Muslim man. As she said, “I’m looking after 80 men, someone is cutting his wrists, and someone needs his medication, I shouldn’t be learning this on the job”. She went onto describe how other prison officers didn’t wake up Muslim prisoners during Ramadan because they had decided that they were unlikely to keep the fasts, unlikely to have the will power to practise this religious ritual so they decided to deny them that right to worship.

Here is the guidance for prisons under the section faith and pastoral care. The mandatory instruction in section 6.1 states that: “Recognised religious festivals, including the associated worship, must be marked and observed …Supervisory staff must be available for the observance of the festival.”

The alarm clock story is in indicative of a number of factors when thinking about Muslim men in the criminal justice system. It shows a lack of basic religious and cultural understanding among individuals, and that this is symptomatic of a much larger problem, one of a system that does not recognise fully the humanity of Muslim men and allows discriminatory acts to occur without fear of accountability and challenge.

The story about the clock matters because over the past 10 years the number of Muslim men in prison has doubled. They now make up just under 14,000, that is 15% of the prison population, while Muslim communities as a whole only make up 5% of the general population. Inconsistency in the criminal justice system means that it is only once you’re in prison that data on religion is collected.

There should be an outcry over these statistics but because religion affiliation is only recorded in prison there is insufficient data collected to understand why this increase has happened. It begs the question, are the bodies of Muslim men more disposable that this disproportionate increase has been allowed to happen unchecked and there still remains a lack of analysis as to why?

We have been holding conversations with Muslim men who are currently in prison and those who have been through the system over the past few years and analysing how services meet their needs and what obstacles might be encountered. In the course of this work what has become clear is the distance that exists between how Muslims regard their religion as an anchor, as positive and rehabilitative, and the view of the criminal justice system who see it as a risk factor and a link to extremism.

As one Muslim man told us: “As a Muslim person, praying 5 times a day in congregation is normal and it happens every day, every year, all up and down the country, all over the world. But when it happens in a prison environment, and you’ve got a bunch of Muslim lads in one cell, it starts setting off alarms in the prison staff -what are they up to, what’s going on?”

“In some places, the officers might think ‘Oh, these guys are getting radicalised, how come one day he’s normal, now he’s got a beard, look he’s praying now, one day he’s a gangster, now he’s preaching’, you get me? So he’s got that closeness to God but they’re thinking people are radicalising him, you might even start getting investigated.”

The silence that surrounds the experiences of Muslim men in prison turns them into shadowy figures. It’s easy to forget they exist as they become intangible figures to whom it is easy to attach stereotypes and caricatures. The radical Muslim, the terrorist Muslim, the extremist Muslim, all the while forgetting that there is scant evidence to back up these claims as only one per cent of Muslim men are convicted of terrorism charges.

Worryingly, are the number of conversations we have had with Muslim men who talk about the number of times they have been banned from Friday prayers for insignificant acts, or where the threat of not being allowed to attend Friday prayer has been used as a form of control.

This was the response from a group of Muslim men when asked the question: do you think there was an understanding of how much Friday prayers meant to you and do you think it was deliberately used to punish you?

“Definitely, definitely. They know that’s the one thing that will get to a Muslim, if he’s not going to get to Friday prayers. That’s their best threat. ‘Shut your mouth or you’re never coming to Friday prayers again.’ Any officer will use that on you. When does he have the right to tell me when I can go and pray to my Lord and when I don’t have the right to pray to my Lord? And when he goes and tells the imam, the imam will listen to him and he won’t let you come to Friday prayers. You have to pray as a group, it’s not accepted if you pray on your own. Personally I got banned for 6 months from Friday prayers. I had to pray alone in my cell for 6 months.”

The mandatory instruction in 2.3 for prisons under the section faith and pastoral care states that:

“A prisoner must not be subject to any form of discrimination or infringement of their human rights by declaring themselves of any faith or religion or as belonging to none. A case of alleged discrimination on the grounds of a prisoner’s registered religion must be recorded in the Chaplaincy Team Journal and reported to the Governor. Each case will be investigated by the Equalities Manager or other appointed manager.”

However, we know from analysis carried out by the Zahid Mubarek Trust and the Prison Reform Trust in their report, Tackling Discrimination in Prison: still not a fair response, that only one in 100 complaints made by a prisoner against a prison officer were upheld. The report goes onto state that:

“The threshold of proof equality officers used to assess prisoners’ claims of discrimination was generally too high. Some equality officers appeared to see their role as defending their colleagues from allegations of bias.”

These stories do not spill out, they are held without any urge or need to tell people as if this discriminatory and dehumanising behaviour is normal. But these stories need to be heard to ensure that silence does not become an ally of discrimination and fear. These stories not only inform but also heal and ensure that there is some recompense, and an attempt at social justice.

There needs to be a sophisticated analysis that is not only intellectually rigorous, but can also register emotion, vulnerability, heritage, culture, and religion. We need to move away from crude acronyms such as BAME which provide a reassuring security blanket for those organisations and institutions who don’t want to venture too near the messiness of people’s lives. All black people, and all Asian people can be lumped together. If the methodology is not sophisticated and therefore ultimately more compassionate, we will only be hearing the most basic stories. Not only is this a huge cost to the tax payer but we are consciously colluding in systemic discrimination and allowing countless lives to be wasted.


A podcast by Maslaha, ‘I’d like to believe: stories of Muslim men in the criminal justice system’, is available here.

Raheel Mohammed is the director and founder of Maslaha and named as one of Britain’s 50 New Radicals by the Observer newspaper and Nesta. He has also been a judge for this award. Under his direction Maslaha creates long-term interventions tackling inequalities in areas such as health, education, gender inequality, the criminal justice system and negative public narratives. The approach is community driven with the aim of creating systemic change. Further reading: Young Muslims on Trial.