Anti-extremism measures in prisons could hamper rehabilitation

30th Sep 2016

Ala Abbas

A Review into prison extremism published by the Government in August makes the claim that “unsupervised collective worship, sometimes at Friday Prayers” and so called “forced conversions” are part of the extremist threat in prisons. No evidence is provided for these claims, nor is sufficient evidence provided for the Review’s main recommendation that specialist units for isolating “Islamist” extremists from the mainstream prison population should be set up. This recommendation would mean the current system under which “known extremists” are dispersed across prisons will be overturned.

The Review, led by Lord Ian Acheson, was commissioned in September 2015 by the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. It defines extremism as the: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs [and] calls for the deaths of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas.”

Secretary of State for Justice, Elizabeth Truss, welcomed one of the Review’s recommendations to remove “extremist literature from prisons” and put in place a “thorough process to assess materials of concern”. However, the Review did not specify what this vetting process would involve and how extremism in literature would be assessed.

A report published earlier this year by the social enterprise, Maslaha, found Muslim inmates had experienced heightened suspicion from officers around group prayers – “any excuse they will ban you from prayers. Once a group of us got banned from prayers because of an incident that happened on the way to the prayer room – even though it had nothing to do with prayers!”

The report concluded that this sat “poorly with guidance from the Ministry of Justice on faith and pastoral care for prisoners, indicating that adequate provision and sensitivity needs to be shown to collective and private worship.”

Although Truss rejected Lord Acheson’s proposal of an “in-cell alternative” to Friday prayers, the issue of banning a faith practice and treating it as a privilege rather than a right, was not acknowledged by the Review.

The Acheson Review mentions that two thirds of prison chaplains follow the Deobandi denomination, “often regarded as a traditional and conservative interpretation” and concluded that while “most chaplains were dedicated members of staff and did good and useful work”, there still needed to be a strengthening of the “vetting of prison chaplains and a range of positions to make sure the right people are in place in prisons to counter extremist beliefs”. With no details provided of this vetting process, nor what constitutes the “right” kind of person for the job, these measures come across as somewhat draconian.

The Review only makes a brief reference to the important and long-standing issue of the disproportionate representation of Muslims within the criminal justice system, and expresses concern only for the impact on extremism this may have: “Statistics show an increasing and disproportionate representation of Muslims within the criminal justice system, which could chime with the radicalisers’ message of the victimisation of Muslims.” The Review makes no reference to the wider connotations of this problem which, according to a 2010 report by the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, is linked to the age and socio-economic profiles of the Muslim population in general: “Both are powerful predictors of involvement in the criminal justice system,” she wrote, “and Muslims in Britain have a notably younger age profile than non-Muslims and are more likely to come from lower socio-economic groups.”

According to Maslaha, faith can be an important part of the rehabilitative process for these prisoners, a fact which the Acheson Review also acknowledges. The Maslaha report cites a case study in which one ex-offender said: “When you’re praying in your cell, you feel a real connection; if you go to mosque you might go just to show other people but in prison it’s just you in your cell. There is integrity to that and remembering that comfort and calm helps change your perspectives when you get out.”

However, according to Dr Ryan Williams, a religious studies academic at Cambridge University’s prison research centre, overt displays of religiosity can be confused with extremism: “Within prisons, everyday Muslim practices of praying, reading the Qur’an, or even reading commentary from Muslim scholars about God’s creation and evolutionary theory can raise concerns over extremism,” he wrote in a draft paper presented to the Canadian Sociological Association annual conference this year.

The Review posits that “Islamist” extremism in prisons involves the “aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam”. However, not only is no evidence of this provided, but the Review itself admits that there is a “lack of hard data on conversions and the reasons behind them”.

Professor Alison Liebling from the University of Cambridge’s prisons research centre, carried out a study of Whitemoor high security prison in 2011. She found that religion appealed to many prisoners serving long and often indeterminate sentences where restrictions had been placed on meaningful activities.


The Review identifies the phenomenon of “self-styled emirs” as part of the extremist threat in prisons, as well as “Muslim gang culture”, but does not explain how so-called “Muslim gang culture” differs from general prison gang culture. Dr. Ryan Williams says claims that Muslim gangs and “emirs” are running prison wings are inaccurate and misleading. He identified popular prisoners who used their influence, regardless of their religious background, to keep the peace on the wings. He argues that rather than being “terrorist kingpins”, they fitted the profile of the US criminologist Gresham Sykes’s “real man”, a category of prisoner who is aloof and self-retrained, but who helps to maintain order.

“The emir had admirable traits and was able to make the right decisions that would benefit the stability of the wing. This had to include promoting good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims,” writes Williams in his draft paper.

With no real link made between convicted extremists and prison gang culture, the policy of isolating extremists makes less sense due to the impact this could have on their rehabilitation when they are released. The Acheson Review recommends “improving extremism prevention training for all prison officers”, but if the very definition of extremism is hard to extricate from the practice of the Islamic faith, then prison officers are going to get confusing messages about exactly what signs to look out for. This could not only result in discrimination against the practice of a particular religion, but could interfere with the important role that religion plays in the rehabilitation of non-extremist prisoners.

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