Donal MacInytre’s BBC Radio 5 Live programme has a special report into the growing problem of radical Muslim gangs in English prisons on Sunday 14 March, 7.30-8.30pm.
According to former inmates and staff, prison officers are struggling to counter the power of these gangs who are taking control of the drugs and mobile phone trade in prisons and using threats or actual violence against non-gang members.
Reporter Ushma Mistry has spoken to prison officers and Muslim and non-Muslim former inmates of Belmarsh, Long Lartin, Doncaster, Wakefield, London Grange, Strangeways, Whitemoor and Wandsworth prisons – with a picture emerging of increased radicalisation, growing intolerance of non-Muslims, enforced religious conversions and inmates converting just to gain the protection from the gangs.
Former inmate Jay confirmed this view, saying: “You know in London jails, Muslims run it. You know in Wandsworth, the mosque is full… in Wandsworth if the screws try to intervene in anything with the brothers [Muslim prisoners], there’ll be riots, yeah. Now in southern jails the Muslims run the prisons and there’s nothing the screws can do about it.”
The former inmates and prison officers describe how the situation has deteriorated with the increase of prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
According to the 2008 prison population figures, the Muslim prisoner population in high security prisons is far higher than the national average of 12% – for example in Belmarsh the Muslim population is 20%, 24% in Long Lartin and 34% in Whitemoor Prison.
One former prison officer at HMP Long Lartin, speaking anonymously, told of cases where non-Muslim prisoners were seriously assaulted and intimidated for refusing to abide by the unofficial rules imposed by Muslim gangs, about eating pork or listening to Western music.
She said one Christian prisoner she was responsible for was stabbed for refusing to read the Koran: “Prison officers feel quite helpless against this situation – there is very little they can do.
“It seemed to me like the prison authorities were scared to upset the detainees so they had to be seen to protect them – even if they were in the wrong.”
She said she knew of young, vulnerable prisoners being bullied into converting to Islam: “I knew one lad quite well, who was approached by the radical Muslims and he changed. He was being controlled and bossed around and he wasn’t even allowed to look at me or speak to me. He just seemed very frightened all the time. He was even forced to grow a long beard even though he didn’t want to. I asked him why he grew the beard and he said ‘it’s survival miss, survival.'”
Former inmates interviewed for the programme describe how the Muslim gangs use violence to retaliate against those fellow inmates deemed to have disrespected the Muslim faith, and an increasing number of inmates converting to Islam as a means of protection.
Jay said: “It’s mainly black boys who convert because straight away they get protection. As soon as they take the Shahada and the next kuffar [non-Muslim] who run up on them, basically [it is] all out war. You don’t get aki [Muslim brothers] that is rushed in jail… [if] they try to intervene in our ways of life they’ll be dead. When they go in the shower they’ll have a snooker ball wrapped around their head in a sock.”
The former inmate also says inmates used to pay prison officers to bring in drugs and al-Qaeda DVDs which were watched openly in their cells.
Colin Moses, National Chairman of the Prison Officers Association, who will be a guest on Sunday’s programme, told the BBC: “As Muslim gangs become more prevalent and they fight to take control of the drug trade in prisons, fight to take control of the dealing in mobile phones, they become more and more dangerous… there should be a high level of worry by those in authority about these gangs.”
The programme has contacted the Ministry of Justice regarding these allegations, who gave the following a response:
“These allegations are unsubstantiated. It is ridiculous to suggest that any gang ‘controls’ a prison.
“The Prison Service has a wealth of experience in dealing with gang activity and managing prisoners who form gangs. Expert staff identify, challenge and disrupt those prisoners attempting to bully, influence or intimidate others. We have long established strategies to address gang behaviour, and to counter bullying, combat illicit mobile phones and tackle drugs.
“Gang identities may vary, but often they are criminal in nature. It is important not to conflate security issues with the prisoners’ religious identities. ‘Muslim gangs’ will be treated like other gangs in relation to security concerns.
“There is no evidence to support the allegation that al-Qaeda videos have ever been openly watched.
“A range of meals are available to prisoners from prison kitchens, always including halal and vegetarian options. Bacon is not and never has been banned.
“Violence is not acceptable in prison and any incidents will be investigated thoroughly and dealt with accordingly, with support from the police where appropriate.
“The National Offender Management Service has a vital role to play in protecting the public, including from the risks posed by violent extremist offenders. The tactical management of those prisoners serving sentences for terrorist and violent extremist offences reflects the seriousness with which we take this responsibility. We have a programme of work in place to respond to the risks of all forms of radicalisation and extremism in prisons (not only al-Qaeda influenced extremism). This work will continue to develop to support prisons in tackling this behaviour.
“Less than 1% of Muslims in prison have committed offences connected with terrorism – faith is not necessarily a factor in determining a person’s vulnerability to extremist behaviour.
“We make provision for all prisoners to practise their faith. Prisoners are free to worship, and to change their religious affiliation. All Muslims in prison have access to a Muslim chaplain who provides them with pastoral and spiritual care as do all prisoners of any recognised religious denomination.”
Hear the full feature on Donal MacIntyre, BBC Radio 5 Live, Sunday 14 March, 7.30-8.30pm.