PREVENT in Prisons: Religious Profiling and Muslim Minority Discrimination

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Counter-extremism and terrorism strategies and laws have decimated the rule of law. The Countering Violent Extremism agenda is being slated by the professoriate and resisted by Muslim minorities in the West. Calls are being made to scrap PREVENT.

Despite this picture, it is “business as usual” in Britain.  The scandalous nature of PREVENT peaks as taxi-drivers are now being trained to become the “eyes and ears” of local authorities and police. One can envisage the scenario of an overzealous taxi driver reporting individuals heading to protests, a mosque or a get together at the local Arab restaurant. The insidiously suppressive nature of counter-extremism makes this all possible.

Prisons have been the latest theatre of ideological war for the neocon counter-extremism craze.  With the imprisonment of Anjem Choudhry came proposals which were last dog-whistled by original Quilliamite and current Tony Blair Faith Foundation senior advisor Ed Husain.  It has been suggested that in order to combat the “pernicious” ideology of “Islamist extremism”, prisoners ought to be kept apart from the rest of the prison population.  As I commented back in March, such measures are counter-productive and not needed.

On the ground, Michael Gove’s authoritarian legacy is having a considerable impact on Muslim prisoners.

Sources have forwarded information on to me which paints a dire picture of the way Muslims are being treated in prisons.  This should be caveated, however; though the information has been corroborated with prisoners, it is drawn from a single prison.

Targeting Religious Expression

It is alleged that Muslims who exhibit certain religious expression are being targeted and discriminated against.

In one case, a Muslim prisoner had reformed himself of his criminal past and was engaged in spiritual exercises and practices (typically referred to as tazikiya or tassawwuf).  He wished to limit his exposure to temptations which led him to his crimes and as such, he would often remain in his “pad” (cell), engaged in recitation of litanies. He also asked for the television to be removed, and limited his contact with other prisoners. My source says that as a result, he attracted the attention of the prison officials, and was questioned in a manner which characterised his behaviour as “extremist”.

The prisoners meditation and seclusion practices have been securitised thanks to PREVENT’s Channel framework.  According to the Channel vulnerability framework, an example of an indicator is that a person engaged with an extremist group loses “interest in other friends and activities not associated with extremist ideology”.

Conditioning Less Islam?

Prisoners exhibiting outward manifestations of Islam are also being discriminated against.  Prisons have jobs which inmates can apply for. Further, privileges like access to a microwave are given or removed depending on the behaviour of prisoners.  According to another prisoner, when he grew his beard beyond fist-length, he was refused better jobs and certain privileges.  He claimed that this was a “trend” he had spotted with other Muslim prisoners too, especially compared to the treatment of non-Muslim prisoners. When he shortened his beard, privileges were granted and he was able to obtain the job he was previously refused. He states that he was “certain” that it was due to him trimming his beard and “appearing less religious”.

The overall perception felt by the prisoners spoken to was that they were being unjustly targeted and that prison guards and officials were overreacting.

Concluding Remarks

Whilst it is easy to slip into indifference when it comes to prisoners, rule of law applies to all citizens, in and out of prisons.  It seems as though existing systems of behavioural conditioning (prisoner privileges, jobs etc.) are being used to condition a version of Islam within prisons which is less visible and watered-down. Discriminatory targeting and treatment allegedly based upon increased religiosity or a simple desire to spiritually reform oneself is outrageous and a continuation of the trail of damage being left by PREVENT.

State interference with the private sphere of religion has, it seems, penetrated the prison system.  Further focus and spotlight is needed to properly assess the impact of PREVENT on Muslim prisoners.

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