Islam in British prisons

Recent media reports of government investigations indicate that throughout the United Kingdom’s category A prisons – those holding the most serious offenders – of Belmarsh, Long Lartin, Woodhill, and Whitemoor, gangs of Islamist extremists intimidate non-Muslim prisoners.  Muslim inmates pressure non-Muslims to convert and extort money from prisoners who do not.  It is unclear how long the problem has been going on.  Media previously reported about pressure to convert three and a half years ago.

According to the U.K.’s Independent Monitoring Board, Muslims are overrepresented in Whitemoor prison, a maximum-security facility holding about 450 inmates.  Muslims make up about half of the total population of that facility.  The board also noted that Muslim gangs make up the “biggest power bloc,” and “some prisoners and staff found the Muslim presence overwhelming.”

Percentage of Population

As of December 2014, 12,225 of the UK’s 84,691 prisoners were Muslim.  That is to say, Muslims made up 14.4% of the U.K.’s prison population. 

According to the U.K.’s most recent census – in 2011 – roughly 2,706,066 or 4.8% out of a population of 56,075,912 identified as Muslim (although, given that the U.K.’s total population is elsewhere identified as 63.2 million, the actual Muslim percentage may be closer to 4.28%).

Based on the 4.8% figure, Muslims appear to be overrepresented in the British prison population by 3.01 times their percentage of the population. 

Back in 2002, 5,502 of the U.K.’s 70,778 prisoners, or 7.8%, were Muslim.  According to the 2001 census, Muslims constituted 3.0% of the total U.K. population.  In other words, Muslims were overrepresented in the U.K. prison population by 2.59 times their percentage of the population.  So the current numbers may represent an increase in degree of overrepresentation (only “may,” because population data for 2014 are unavailable, given that the last census was three years earlier), but not a huge one.

More noteworthy is the fact that, compared to Muslim incarceration rates in France and the United States, the U.K. rate is actually low.  Muslims are overrepresented in the French prison population by 7.5 times their percentage of the population; they make up 60% of the French prison population but only 8% of the general population.  In the United States, although their overall percentage is smaller, Muslims are overrepresented in the prison population by 11.25 times their percentage of the population; they make up 9% of the U.S. prison population but only 0.8% of the general population. 

Questions Remaining

Will the U.K. government act to protect non-Muslim prisoners from intimidation by Muslim prisoners?  Will it sanction the Muslim gangs and their accomplices?  Or will it simply accept second-class status for non-Muslims, as the U.K.’s justice system seems in danger of doing? 

Will it explore the factors leading to overrepresentation of Muslims in the prison population?  One must wonder whether the overrepresentation is at least partly the result of intimidation on other prisoners to convert.

Given that Muslims are able to exert so much pressure in prisons for serious offenders, and make up about half of the prison population at one of them (Whitemoor), are Muslims overrepresented in more serious offenses?  If so, why?

Finally, given these reports, and the even greater overrepresentation of Muslims in French and U.S. prisons, will authorities in France and the U.S. investigate whether Islamist extremists in their prisons are likewise pressuring and/or extorting non-Muslim prisoners, and whether Muslims are overrepresented among more serious criminals?

Johanna Markind is associate counselor for the Middle East Forum.