13/12/2012 05:47 GMT | Updated 11/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Is a Rethink Required to Tackle the Rise of Young Muslims in UK Prisons?

The number of young male Muslims in Young Offender Institutions in the UK has risen sharply according to figures published jointly by the Youth Justice Board and Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. A little over 20 percent of young Muslims occupy these prisons in the UK. This is an alarming statistic considering 3% of the general population is Muslim. The disproportionate representation of Muslims in these prisons has been a growing trend since 2006. The need to understand the root causes has never been more important.

Since its recent publication, the mainstream media spotlight on Muslim youth has interestingly not featured the usual narratives of 'Broken Britain' or 'Failed Multiculturalism'. In fact, the reaction to the coverage has been one of confusion rather than political hyperbole. Questions from community leaders on whether one can really be a Muslim and commit a crime as well as lack of answers by the service providers accounting for the rise reveal not only a failure to understand the diversity and complexity of Muslim identity but also the social and economic disadvantages faced by young British Muslims.

Young Muslims in the UK are more likely to experience exclusion because of where they live as well as limited access to economic opportunities. Muslims aged 16-24 have a higher chance of being unemployed in comparison to the general population. This combined with the age of the Muslim population in general plays a part in explaining the high incidence of young Muslim prisoners. For example, approximately 50 percent of the Muslim population in London is under the age of 24, which is younger than the average age of London as a whole.

Following last week's publication of statistics about young offenders, policy makers look set to focus on the experiences of Muslim offenders inside prisons. However, in 2006, Muslim Youth Helpline found that 35% of Muslim inmates it surveyed had reoffended, so it is important not to neglect how existing services can focus and improve on the resettlement needs of Muslim ex-offenders. What's more, in order to understand the relationship between Muslim identity and the resettlement needs of Muslim ex-offenders, it is essential to grasp the wider social context of Muslim social exclusion in Britain.

The Muslim Youth Helpline (MYH) which provides pioneering faith and culturally sensitive services to Muslim youth in the UK, runs an annual Prisoners campaign to promote better understanding and relationship between the Muslim community and inmates. In 2011, MYH released a report which shed light on the challenges faced by young British Muslim ex-offenders. The report highlighted wide-ranging difficulties faced by ex-offenders on resettlement issues and reintegration into community and employment.

One of the key findings revealed that young people leaving prisons found themselves ostracized 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.  MYH was set up because the community was failing to meet the needs of young people and to challenge the taboos that stifle the discussion of issues facing the community, such as the view that criminals can't be Muslims.  As the charity celebrates its 10th year, the Muslim community continues to fail to show the compassion that it should towards its most marginalized community members.

In a time of increasing economic constraints and budget cuts from national Government, it is really important that service providers such as the voluntary sector, Government agencies and the Muslim community, strengthen collaboration in their mutual capacity to confront and resolve the varied difficulties that young Muslim ex-offenders face in their efforts to resettle back into British society. This approach can significantly reduce the chances of young British Muslims re-offending, and a real chance for rehabilitation to succeed.