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Prisons: Muslim Prisoners

Volume 720: debated on Monday 12 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the Chief Inspector of Prisons’ thematic review on Muslim prisoners’ experiences.

My Lords, the Government welcome the report. We are pleased that it recognises the considerable progress prisons have made in meeting the religious needs of Muslim prisoners.

The National Offender Management Service has an ongoing programme of work to ensure that all prisoners are treated with respect and decency and that service provision is fair.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he accept that it is a matter of serious concern that Muslim inmates constitute 10 per cent of our prison population as against a representation of 3 per cent in the community? There is no evidence that this group is proportionally involved in more crime than any other racial or religious group. Will he therefore undertake to ensure that the sentencing guidelines and the sentencing variables have no adverse impact on this group? Will he also develop a strategy for effective staff engagement with Muslims in which prison staff and the Muslim community are involved?

My Lords, there may be several reasons why the proportion of Muslims in custody is as it is. I was surprised to find that they constituted 3 per cent of the population but 10 per cent plus of the prison population. Further study is needed to see whether we can identify some of the reasons for this.

On training, we are committed to developing effective communication between prisoners and staff. We have already taken a number of actions aimed at ensuring effective staff engagement with Muslim prisoners. During my briefing, I was shown a card issued to all staff on how to engage with Muslim prisoners. It very much emphasises a respect for their faith and how it should be handled within the prison.

My Lords, what is the rate of conversion to Islam within prisons and what steps are the Prison Service taking in terms of monitoring radicalisation and external speakers who come into prisons?

I do not have precise figures on conversions, but I know the background to this question of whether or not there is radical Islamisation in prisons. The studies that I have been shown reveal no conclusive evidence of this, although there are examples which give rise to concern. The staff and the wider Prison Service keep a close eye on imams in prisons. Bringing them in to lecture, preach and minister within prisons has been one of the benefits, but we must make sure that it is a positive influence, as the noble Lord suggested.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of imams in the Prison Service, which is warmly commended in the report? Does he agree with my own experience that a general difference between a good prison and a bad prison is the relationship between the staff and the inmates and that what is so significant about the report’s findings is that there are so many negative perceptions of Islam among wide sections of prison staff?

First, in parallel, I pay tribute to the role that Anglican and other Christian pastors play in our Prison Service, which is greatly appreciated. On the dangers of radicalisation in prison, in many ways prison staff reflect the fears of our wider society. Therefore, it is worth reminding people that only 80 of those in prison are there for terrorist offences and that the vast majority of convictions are not terrorist-related. What we must not do—and we have some hard lessons to learn from drug regimes—is think that people go to prison as Muslims or having converted to Islam and are then radicalised. There are dangers that prison could provide this kind of background. I was, in fact, talking with my noble friend Lord Dholakia about the idea of perhaps encouraging more young and successful Muslim entrepreneurs from society in general to become prison visitors or mentors, make contact with these young people and demonstrate to them that there is a positive role. I said at the beginning that there is an impressive training programme which is trying to educate the staff to deal with this problem.

My Lords, given the chief inspector’s recent report, can the Minister find out what proportion of prisoners are Muslim by conversion and let those who have asked questions today know the answer, given that it would affect the statistical discrepancy?

I will find out, write to the noble Lord and put a copy of the letter in the Library. It is clear that the statistical discrepancy is not explained by mass conversions in prison. There is a suspicion by old hands that some people may convert because they think that it will give them a more privileged regime. However, I suspect that sometimes people—well, I will go no further. We are looking at conversion as an old soldier’s way of missing out some of the more onerous parts of the prison regime, but the main discrepancy lies far deeper. I will get the exact figures and put them in the Library.