Government bodies have been reporting the over-representation of Muslims in the prison system for years. According to a report produced by Parliament, while Muslims in Britain represented only 4% of the population in 2012, they formed 13% of all prisoners and this statistic is rising year on year.
Speculation around the causes for this has included generic explanations and crude accusations. Socio-economic disadvantages that are inherent in Muslim communities play part to revealing the reasons behind this statistic, which have been exacerbated by Islamophobia since 9/11. More recently, a report by the Prison Officers Association (POA) has claimed that prison inmates are being bullied into conversion to Islam by Muslim gangs.
While attention on this issue has caused alarm and concern, Rukaiya Jeraj from the Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) and campaign manager for their prisons campaign, spoke about how the rate of re-offending rates among the Muslim community is also un-representatively high and that the needs or make-up of this category are not properly addressed.
Regarding the conversion rate of Muslims in prison and it being caused by the influence of gangs, Rukaiya admits that there is a high conversion rate of Muslims in prison and ‘yes those reasons may be true’. However, inmates convert for a variety of reasons, not solely for ‘protection’ or fear of other inmates as claimed by the POA. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands to explore other faiths, some disingenuously convert as inmates perceive Muslims to be getting privileges such as more meals during Ramadan, visits to the Imam, time off for Friday prayer etc. ‘What would be interesting to see is if those same inmates still describe themselves as Muslim six months down the line’. Synonymously, many publicly deny they are Muslim for fear of the stigma attached to this. Fundamentally, however, the problem is the Muslim community is regarded as a large generic group whereas in fact it is a diverse segment of society made up of varying ethnicities and even theological nuances. Rukaiya believes that those figures could be broken down even further to understand what the cultural trends are. Beyond the media furore of high numbers of Muslim prisoners in the UK, what has not been picked up on is the high rate of re-offending among Muslims and this is something MYH has been working on in a bid to fill a gap that no-one else, not least the prison system, is filling.