The unexplained increase in the number of Muslims in prison is a “worrying” trend and potential source of “social division”, a landmark report into racism in criminal justice has said.
Labour MP David Lammy said the lack of data meant the fact the Muslim prison population had risen almost a 50 percent in a decade was unexplained, adding: “The lack of transparency undermines accountability.”
The Muslim prison population is now 13,200. It means Muslims are 15 percent of all prisoners but five percent of the British population.
In his report on race disparity in the criminal justice system, Lammy notes courts and prosecutors don’t record defendants’ religion and said this made it impossible to answer why the Muslim population had surged.
The report, commissioned by David Cameron in 2016 and published on Friday, says: “This is a worrying trend and risks becoming a source of social division...
“We know far too little about what has been driving this trend. Are charging decisions, or trial outcomes affecting the numbers ending up in prison?
“Are large proportions of prisoners converting to Islam once they are in custody? We simply do not know. This gap needs to be taken seriously.”
Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman David Isaac told HuffPost UK: “From our perspective, we’d want to understand if this is related to Islamophobia, but we simply do not know why this is happening.
“This is why we need more transparent data published. Then we can see why it might be and what action should be taken to limit it.”
Dr Zubaida Haque, a researcher on race disparity for equality think tank The Runnymede Trust, who has studied the experience of ethnic minority men in prisons, said there were “myths and stereotypes” around the rise in the number of Muslims in prisons.
The main ones are that it is due to terror convictions and that prisoners are converting to Islam in large numbers, she said.
Dr Haque said, as Lammy’s report notes, the relatively small number of terror convictions could not account for the increase and the number of prisoners who actually converted was also low.
In 2006, then-Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers warned Belmarsh Prison was at “full stretch” to deal with the number of Muslim inmates facing terrorism charges.
But, between 2001 and 2012, only 175 Muslims were convicted of terrorism offences, according to the Home Office.
Dr Haque said she had noticed an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in prisons in recent years and said: “It wouldn’t be surprising to me if that was happening across the criminal justice system.”
“It’s not happening within a social vacuum,” she told HuffPost UK. “I think that a lot of it is happening for the same reason that black people are being funelled into the criminal justice system.
“That’s because of racial profiling, because of cultural stereotypes. Muslim men are being treated the same discriminatory way as black men by the authorities..”
She added: “What else would explain the rise? The alternative theory is that they’re more criminal and there’s no evidence to support that.”
The lack of data makes it hard to demonstrate definitely any disparity in defendants because of religion.
But Lammy’s review found large racial disparities in sentencing. For every 100 white women given prison sentences at crown courts for drug offences, 227 black women were given the same.
For black men, it was 141 for every 100 white men.
Lammy recommended the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts start collecting data on defendants’ religion to explain trends like the surge in the number of Muslim prisoners.
He said: “Over representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals has resulted in a chronic ‘trust deficit’, as well as costing the taxpayer over £300m a year.
“Many BAME defendants simply do not believe that the justice system will deliver less punitive treatment if they plead guilty.
“The best way to ensure fair, equal treatment is to subject decision-making to scrutiny - helping identify and eliminate bias at source.”
The Muslim Council of Britain has called the number of Muslims in prison an “unwelcome social reality”, saying offending was more common among younger and poorer people which are “both factors affecting Muslims in the UK”.
Dr Haque added poverty was a major factor in explaining why so many Muslims were in prison to begin with.
She said: “You’ve got 50% of Muslims growing up in the 10% of the poorest areas. Deprivation is a big predictor of crime...
“It can’t be just that they’re poor.... They are real racial elements to this.”
Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor David Lidington said: “We will always seek to drive out discrimination wherever it exists.
“That is why the Prime Minister ordered the unprecedented collection of data allowing the clearest understanding to date of how someone’s ethnicity can impact their day to day life, which will be published next month.”