||The Daily Telegraph yesterday carried an article on a Ministry of Justice report on Whitemoor Prison, written by researchers at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology. The article was headlined ‘Prisoners under pressure to convert to Muslim 'gang'’. The report on which the article is based is titled, ‘An exploration of staff-prisoner relationships at HMP Whitemoor: 12 years on’. The research was published in November last year, though it appears to have only been made available recently.
From the Daily Telegraph:
“Inmates at HMP Whitemoor told researchers commissioned by the Ministry of Justice that they changed their faith for protection or because they were bullied into it.
“Prison guards said they had a policy of “appeasement” towards the powerful and growing Islamic population, particularly convicted terrorists who were feared to be recruiting future extremists.
“ “There were some intimidating ‘heavy players’ among the Muslim population, who appeared to be orchestrating prison power dynamics rather than propagating or following the faith. Many physically powerful prisoners ‘re-established their outside identities’ as leaders in the prison and used their (newly acquired) faith status as a tool for establishing influence.
“ “Non-Muslim prisoners described wearing underpants in the showers on some spurs (out of ‘respect’ and fear) and some Muslim prisoners described a form of intimidation exerted (‘they probably do feel shamed’) relating to cooking (especially frying bacon) in the kitchens.”
“Following concerns over Islamic radicalisation in a 2008 report by inspectors, researchers visited Whitemoor between 2009 and 2010 to interview staff and inmates.”
“They found that more than a third (35 to 39 per cent) of prisoners are now Muslims, compared with 11 per cent across all jails.
“Many of those they spoke to had converted while inside but they had mixed motivations for doing so, and not all had done so voluntarily.
“Reasons included “seeking care and protection”, “gang membership” and “coercion” as well as “rebellion” since Islam was seen as the “underdog”.
“…it was also claimed that non-Muslims felt “envy” at the preferential treatment, including better food, given to Muslims.
“The report concluded: “The new population mix, including younger, more black and minority ethnic and mixed race, and high numbers of Muslim prisoners, was disrupting established hierarchies in the prison. Social relations among prisoners had become complex and less visible. Too much power flowed among some groups of prisoners, with some real risks of serious violence. There were high levels of fear in the prison. In particular, there were tensions and fears relating to ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalisation’.
““More prominent, in practice, were pressures (and temptations) felt by some prisoners to convert to Islam. Conditions in the prison made participation in Islamic practices the most ‘available’ option for those looking for belonging, meaning, ‘brotherhood’, trust and friendship."”
For many reasons, the article simply appears to be an excuse to have a dig at Muslims. First of all, it appears to infer that the research was carried out because of “concerns over Islamic radicalisation in a 2008 report by inspectors”. However, as to the aims and objectives of the research, the report actually states that,
“A previous study carried out at HMP Whitemoor in 1998/9, published in 2001… found very positive relationships at the establishment; however, by 2008 a report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP 2008) described apparently ‘distant relationships’ between staff and prisoners. This apparent decline is a clear matter of concern and interest.” Given this, the report states its objectives were to explore staff-prisoner relationships at Whitemoor, as well as describe the prison experience at Whitemoor. The research was not, therefore, as we may be led to believe, carried out because of specific concerns over Islamic radicalisation. The report does nonetheless state that:
“Whilst the research did not set out explicitly to explore relationships between Muslim prisoners and others, the role of faith and in-prison conversions to Islam, or the risks of radicalisation, these became important themes in the research because of their prominence in staff and prisoner experience at Whitemoor.”
So the report found that issues relating to the Muslim prison population featured prominently, however such concerns were not what prompted the research.
Moreover, the article focuses on the pressure on non-Muslims to convert to Muslim ‘gangs’. However the report itself is far broader in its reach and presents a far from straight forward picture. For example, the report states that “A new population mix, including younger, more Black and minority ethnic and mixed race, and high numbers of Muslim prisoners, was disrupting established hierarchies. Social relations among prisoners had become complex and less visible.”
It also states that “Faith ‘identities’ were being adopted and used in many ways at Whitemoor, including for protection. The main motivations for turning to faith were: sense-making, searching for meaning, identity, and structure; dealing with the pains of long-term imprisonment; seeking ‘brotherhood’/family; or ‘anchored relations’; seeking care and protection; gang membership; rebellion; and coercion.”
It adds that, “Conditions in the prison made participation in Islamic practices the most ‘available’ option for those looking for belonging, meaning, ‘brotherhood’, trust and friendship.”
Although pressure and coercion may be playing a part in the adoption of an Islamic identity in Whitemoor, factors relating to identity and meaning also appear to play a significant part. The report also points out in its concluding discussion that “Prisons are highly unsettling environments in which individuals are more likely than elsewhere to explore new beliefs and associations.” The Telegraph’s focus therefore, on one aspect of the prison/faith experience- that of coercion and of aggression, misses out a much broader picture of the prison/faith/identity experience; this indicates an agenda to portray Muslims as an aggressive and coercive group.
Moreover, the report carries other significant findings, which the Daily Telegraph entirely overlooks. This includes issues to do with the Muslim prisoner experience and feelings of alienation and being targeted. Perhaps even more significantly, the report points to several research findings which indicate that staff are ill-trained in their understanding of Islam, perceiving it “as a radical religion”, and that they are poorly-trained in the way that they deal with Muslim prisoners. The report points out that this may even perpetuate prisoner radicalisation, as by ‘over-estimating extremism’, the staff ‘pushed prisoners together’, reinforced their views and gave them more power. Does the Daily Telegraph not perceive these findings to be of concern?
Such findings of the impact of staff behaviour on the radicalisation of Muslim prisoners are supported by previous research. For example, a 2010 report into Muslim prisoner experiences found that the ‘blanket’ approach towards Muslim prisoners by prison staff, and the tendency to see Muslim prisoners through the lens of terrorism and extremism cements feelings of alienation and disaffection and increases the risk of producing men who are “more likely to offend, or even embrace extremism'. However, it is important to point out that whilst the risk of radicalisation in prison has been explored, research has been inconclusive in finding a clear link between radicalisation and serving time in prison, with the February 2012 Home Affairs Select Committee report into the ‘Roots of Violent Radicalisation’ stating that “there is seldom concrete evidence to confirm that this is where they were radicalised.”
This is not the first time that Whitemoor Prison has come to the attention of the media- in 2008, the Sunday Express carries a sensationalist headline stating that ‘Muslim fanatics hijack British Prison’. The Daily Telegraph’s reporting appears to be a similar attempt and excuse to portray Muslims in a negative and threatening light, and gives a narrow picture of the findings of the Ministry of Justice report.
The full Ministry of Justice report is available to download here.