The shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has rightly called for an inquiry on rising prison populations from the Muslim community in London prisons. Figures show that 27% of London prisoners are Muslims; double the rate of the overall Muslim population in the city.
Ministry of Justice figures show that the number of Muslims in the prisons of England and Wales has more than doubled to nearly 12,000 in a decade. "This dramatic rise prompted calls for ministers to investigate whether police and the courts are treating Muslims more harshly, with some suggesting the rise is due to Islamophobia."
In some jails the proportion of inmates of Islamic faith is more than one-third. In Whitemoor, a Category A men's prison in Cambridgeshire, it is as high as 43 per cent. A prison inspection report expressed a 'fear that increasing numbers of prisoners were converting to Islam and being radicalised'. The report also mentioned that "officers tended to treat Muslim prisoners as extremists and potential security risks, even though only eight of them had been convicted of terrorist offences."
It is feared that the number will rise because of the increasing numbers of Muslim teenagers in youth jails; a large number of teenagers and young men of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are known to end up in prison from the age of 15 to 25 in recent times.
It is also an unpalatable reality that young British Muslim prison leavers are more likely to reoffend. They find themselves ostracised and shunned by the community and therefore "more likely to turn to their old friends and networks that led to the cycle of crime in the first place." MOSAIC and Muslim Youth Helpline have been working to raise awareness of the challenges faced by young Muslims ex-offenders who need additional support from their probation officer, prison staff member or someone from their own community so that they can stay away from reoffending.
Due to Islam's aversion to criminality the Muslim community is generally known to be law abiding. Why then is its prison population consistently and disproportionately increasing year on year, bringing embarrassment and shame to their families and community?
Analysts point fingers to many reasons - some internal to the community itself and others external.
There are some inevitable social factors that one needs to keep in mind - such as lower educational performance, higher unemployment, poor housing conditions for decades that have given rise to social exclusion of many Muslims. As Muslims mostly live in inner city conurbation affected by multiple social problems such as drugs and gang issues, they appear to exacerbate the problem. Poor parenting in sections of the community and less-than-satisfactory involvement of young people in mosques and community organisations are some factors that create a disconnection between generations. For impressionable youth this creates a vacuum in their aspiration and hole in their motivation to sail through the complex post-modern and highly secular life.
On the other hand, it is a stark reality that Black and Asian people remain far more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police on the street, arrested and sent to prison. In spite of a reduced use of stop and search powers by the police black people remain six times more likely to be stopped; it is twice for Asian or mixed race people. Muslims being a large community within this category fall victim of this exercise.
The continuous negative media portrayal of the Muslim community that started with tabloid newspapers post-7/7, and has now spread widely into mainstream media after the Lee Rigby murder last year, is draining Muslim confidence. Racialisation, or rather 'Islamisation', of criminality and amplification of anything to do with Muslim and Islam are negatively affecting young Muslims who are at the sharp end of this 'visibly' unfair public discourse.
The Annual report 2010-11 by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales observed, "Our thematic report on Muslim prisoners warned that an exclusive emphasis on combating extremism, combined with the wider media portrayals of Islam, encouraged staff to associate all Muslim prisoners with terrorism."
How do we stop this waste of human talent and a huge drain on our national economy? This needs a community approach as well as a wider social agenda, both from the top and from the bottom. The Muslim community, for its part, must take this as a priority and use all its resources - mosques, community and youth centres, educational and business establishments, charity sectors, etc - to combat the problem with full force.
Support groups specialised in advice and counselling should engage with young vulnerable people to improve their quality of life and self-esteem, before they engage in criminality in the first place. They should strengthen collaboration and work with mosques and other community bodies to ease ex-offenders' transition from custody back into British society.
Prisons chaplains should not only provide religious and spiritual service to the prisoners, but also take steps to rehabilitate and reintegrate them within wider society.
No less important now is a need for the government to review its pervasive Prevent Strategy vis a vis Muslims and give the community a space for their civil and political dissent. Responsible journalism is needed to curb sensational media headlines on Muslims, as they create a siege atmosphere for Muslims and much angst in the wider society.
It is time we join hands and take effective measures to beat the soaring Muslim prison population.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting. He was the former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).