Courtesy Richard Ford, Home Correspondent, Times UK Online
Prison staff in top security jails in Britain are confronting a growing gang culture with groups of Muslim inmates seeking to assert their authority on the wings.
A prisons watchdog report published today provides fresh evidence of the extent of gang activity among inmates jailed for the most serious crimes and of the growing proportion of Muslim inmates held in high-security conditions.
Twenty five per cent of the 430 population of Long Lartin top security jail in Worcestershire are now Muslim, according to an inspection report by Dame Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons.
Prisoners told Dame Anne during her inspection that offenders at the jail are converting to Islam because they want the protection of belonging to a big Muslim group. One inmate quoted in the report said:â€Yes, there is a gang culture here which is becoming an issue. A lot of people are becoming Muslim just because it a bigger group.â€
Another inmate warned that all violence in the jail was gang related and that Long Lartin was in danger of turning into an American-style prison. He said: â€œIf you are not in a gang, youâ€™re in trouble. People are converting to Islam for protection.â€
The comments reflect similar concerns at other top security jails such as Belmarsh in southeast London and Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire.
The number of Muslim prisoners in jails doubled in the eleven years to 2007 to reach 8,864 – 11 per cent of the total prison population. Muslim prisoners make up one third of the population of Whitemoor, 15 per cent of Full Sutton top security prison in Yorkshire and 20 per cent of Belmarsh jail.
In todayâ€™s report, Dame Anne said the jailâ€™s security department was monitoriting the difficulties of gang activity, potential extremism and radicalisation of inmates in a balanced way. She said staff had been left to balance as best they could the need to engage with and ensure proper treatment for Muslim prisoners and the need to monitor and prevent radicalisation.
â€œThere needs to be a national strategy to equip staff better to engage and support Muslim prisoners,â€ she said.
There is no multi-faith room at the jail and this has resulted in Friday prayers being held in three separate locations.
A survey found that the proportion of prisoners who believed their faith was respected had fallen significantly and only 48 per cent of Muslim respondents said they were respected by staff, compared with a 67 per cent response from non Muslims.
â€œGiven the sensitivities surrounding Muslim prisoners, including the perceived risk of radicalisation, staff required training and advice on how to engage Muslim prisoners better,â€ the inspection report said.
Phil Wheatley, director general of the National Offender Management Service, said the Governor and senior management are committed to ensuring that all prisoners at the jail feel safe. â€œA new programme to improve engagement, led by the Muslim chaplain, will develop support specifically for Muslim prisoners,â€ he said.