Time to end the silence – racism in prisons during COVID-19

Time to end the silence – racism in prisons during COVID-19

Raheel Mohammed

In ‘normal times’, the state sanctioned racism that exists in prisons has meant black and brown people’s basic rights have been denied. In a state of emergency, a denial of these rights cannot be condoned as the danger of loss of life is immediate.

Our report, Time to End the Silence: the experience of Muslims in the prison system –  shows in stark detail how Muslims in prison face racism and a system that has a basic lack of knowledge about Islam, which obstructs them from practising their religion and prevents them from accessing vital services such as mental health programmes. At this moment of of crisis, these factors suddenly become urgent and potentially life threatening.

The fact that brown and black communities may be disproportionality falling ill due to coronavirus matters when the number of Muslim prisoners has more than doubled over the past 17 years. In 2002 there were 5,502 Muslims in prison, by 2019 this had risen to 13,341. According to the most recent figures, 40% are Asian, 29% are black, 16% are white and 9% are mixed ethnicity.

The head of the British Medical Association, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, has said: “We also know that in terms of the BAME population, they make up about a third of those in intensive care. There’s a disproportionate percentage of BAME people getting ill.” Dr Nagpaul added: “Previous inequalities will be greater at a time of crisis. This [coronavirus] may be bringing into focus historic inequalities facing BAME communities.” (see also, other articles in Discover Society by Dhairyawan and Chetty and by Bécares and Nazroo).

As a significant proportion of Muslim prisoners are from a BAME background and therefore already been the victims of societal inequalities and racism, they are potentially more at risk from contracting the coronavirus in the crowded and often unsanitary conditions of a prison.

In evidence to the Justice Select Committee last year David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary, said: “The one area where I found discriminatory practice…was in the prison system. There were too many prisons where it was clear…that there is institutional racism and very poor practice.”

Our report shows a lack of basic religious and cultural understanding among individuals which is symptomatic of a much larger problem of a system that does not fully recognise the religious needs of Muslims. It also prevents Muslims from trusting and accessing vital services and creates a culture of distrust between prisoners and prison staff which has the potential for dire consequences when faced with a pandemic.

Muslims in prison spoke to us about how prison staff would be suspicious if they spoke to a Listener (a Samaritans peer support service ) or tried to access the scheme — ‘they [prison staff] think we [Muslim prisoners] are up to something’.

According to the focus group participants, prison staff would question why they wanted to use it. The participants of the focus groups thought this was because prison officers didn’t trust them and thought Muslim prisoners might have alternative agendas. This has put some of them off using the scheme — having to deal with that reaction and explain themselves was ‘not worth it.

It is worth noting how vital the Listener scheme is in the prison system, it is a service that should be communicated to every new prisoner as a way to reduce suicide and self-harm in prisons. Prisons should aim to have enough Listeners available round the clock for anyone who needs to talk to them.

We found that Muslims in prison were highly aware of how their religiosity might be seen and the negative impact that this could have on them. We heard how constant judgements are being made about how much religiosity to show even when accessing a vital talking therapy service. This means for Muslim prisoners, it is not simply about choosing to access a service, but how this action will be seen, how will this be recorded, and whether it will have an adverse outcome. Concerns were raised by the focus groups about being too open and visible with their religion as it was felt that staff were “looking out” for signs of radicalism and extremism.

Now imagine this context during a pandemic where prisoners are locked up in their cells for 23 hours and during Ramadan.

There also does not appear to have been a specific risk assessment carried out for how Muslims in prison (or black and brown communities more widely) will be affected by COVID-19 generally and specifically during Ramadan.

This matters in light of Government “risk assessments” about who is released early during the pandemic and what criteria is followed, and bluntly, which lives matter the most. In the prison system, Muslim and brown and black prisoners are viewed as being more risky and therefore face more punitive action and sometimes violence as the rollout of a chemical restraint, Pava spray, in 2019 showed.

In response to a legal challenge to the introduction of Pava Spray, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)  found that: ‘Following the launch of the legal action (by EHRC), the Ministry of Justice carried out a more detailed equality impact assessment. This revealed disproportionate use of force in prisons against younger people, black people and Muslim people, which the Ministry of Justice was unable to explain. It also uncovered a serious lack of data about the use of force on disabled people in prisons and limited understanding of learning disabilities by prison staff.’

During the introduction of Pava spray into prison was that there had not been adequate equality impact assessments. The question rises in the context where Muslims are viewed disproportionately  through the lens of risk, report disproportionately negative experiences in Prison, what are the safeguards and equality impact assessments in place in order to protect them from coronavirus?

The criminal justice voluntary sector, which is overwhelmingly white, although strongly pushing for the release of prisoners on humanitarian grounds has conspicuously not spoken about racial disparity and who “deserves” to be released because of the pandemic.

So it falls, again, on black and brown people to be more direct. Prisons are an honest and brutal reflection of how racism plays out in wider society, how conditions are maintained and reproduced.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore in her book The Golden Gulag, explains the fallacy that prisons are on the margins of society: “at the margins of social spaces, economic regions, political territories, and fights for rights. This apparent marginality is a trick of perspective, because as every geographer knows, edges are also interfaces. For example, even while borders highlight the distinction between places, they also connect places into relationships with each other and with non-contiguous places.”

The mantra of ‘we’re all in it together’ unravels very quickly when we see how COVID-19 will lead to inequalities and racism becoming more acute in structures such as the criminal justice system, and worsened by the lack of checks and accountability.


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.