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Don't treat Muslim prisoners as potential terrorists: British report

The British government has been warned that the present attitude of jail authorities in England and Wales to treat all Muslim prisoners as potential terrorists runs the risk of drawing them to extremism upon their release.

world Updated: Jun 08, 2010 20:35 IST

The British government has been warned that the present attitude of jail authorities in England and Wales to treat all Muslim prisoners as potential terrorists runs the risk of drawing them to extremism upon their release.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers has said in a report published on Monday that such a blanket treatment is prevalent throughout the prison system even though very few of the Muslim prisoners are doing time for terrorist-related offences.

"There has been considerable public focus on them as potential extremists and on prisons as the place where they may become radicalised, often through conversion - even though fewer than one per cent are in prison for terrorist-related offences," the report says.

The report is based on interviews with 164 Muslim prisoners in eight prisons and young offender institutions.

The number of Muslims in prison in England and Wales has soared in recent years from 2,513, or five percent of the prison population, in 1994 to 6,571 or eight percent in 2004 and to 10,300, more than 12 percent, on the latest figures.

The chief inspector says the main finding from the surveys and interviews was that Muslim prisoners report more negatively on their prison experience, and particularly their safety and relationships with staff, than other prisoners.

Treating these prisoners as a homogenous group is erroneous, Owers says: "Some are birth Muslims, and others have converted. In prisoner surveys, 40 per cent were Asian, one per cent white and 10 per cent of mixed heritage."

"One of their main grievances was, however, that staff tended to think of them as a group, rather than as individuals, and too often through the lens of extremism and terrorism - whether that was to prevent, or detect, those issues," the report says.

The report calls for prison staff to be trained to treat Muslim prisoners as individuals rather than treating them all alike.

"Without that there is a real risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy: that the prison experience will create or entrench alienation and disaffection, so that prisons release into the community young men who are more likely to offend, or even embrace extremism," Owers says.

Her report also discounts claims by prison staff that gangs are forcing non-Muslim prisoners to convert to Islam. The report says that while conversions are common, they are more likely to be the result of better food at Ramazan, the benefits of protection within a group and the discipline and structure provided by observing Islam through prayer.

The problem is most acute in high security prisons where three-quarters of Muslims interviewed say they feel unsafe, which is strongly linked to mistrust of the staff. Up to a third of Muslim prisoners are said to be adopting the religion while serving their sentence.

The National Offender Management Service -- the umbrella body of prison officers -- says Owers' report on how Muslims prisoners are treated is incorrect.

Director-general Phil Wheatley told Daily Mail: "It is not right to say that NOMS has a blanket security-led approach to Muslim prisoners. Our clear policy is that all prisoners are treated with respect and decency and that the legitimate practice of faith in prison is supported."

Meanwhile, a YouGov poll of 2,152 adults reveals widespread concern about the impact of the faith on British values. It found that nearly six out of every 10 people associate Islam with radical views, and two-thirds believe it encourages the repression of women.