Prisoners under pressure to convert to Muslim 'gang'
PUBLISHED May 30, 2012
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.
Non-believers avoided confrontation with any Muslim in case it led to retribution from the wider group, and said they even avoided cooking pork or bacon in communal kitchens or undressing in the showers in case it caused offence.
The report, written by researchers at the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, said: "Conflict and tension existed between and within faith groups.
"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."
HMP Whitemoor is situated in a "remote Fenland town" far from most inmates' families, and is home to 440 Category A and B prisoners, almost all of whom are serving more than 10 years behind bars and seven of home are convicted terrorists.
Opened in 1991, three years later it was the scene of an escape by six prisoners including some IRA members.
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".
Prisoners told the researchers that becoming Muslim was a "cover" for power and influence.
Loners including sex offenders gained safety from joining a large and dominant group, as fellow members would defend them.
Non-Muslims and prison officers claimed that it was an "organised gang" and a "protection racket" rather than a religion, which "glorified terrorist behaviour and exploited the fear related to it".
Others said they had felt under pressure to convert, with people leaving Islamic literature in their cells and telling them to "read this", or promising they would be safe from physical assault if they changed faith.
"The threat of assaults motivated by religious fanaticism or extremist ideology added weight to the atmosphere at Whitemoor."
Guards said there were "proper Al-Qaeda" members in the jail, who were regarded with "awe" by younger inmates, but they avoided confrontation and had "runners" to do their bidding.
Some prisoners described the place as a "recruiting drive for the Taliban" and fertile ground for hatred and a new generation of extremists.
One inmate said he was targeted because he wore a Remembrance Day poppy and his brother served in the Army, with people shouting "your wife's burning in hell because she's not a Muslim" at him.
But 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."