Conversion to Islam in prisons
Conversion to Islam in prisons refers to the modern phenomenon seen in the Western world of a statistically high incidence of incarcerated criminal non-Muslims converting to Islam while in the prison system. In the decade preceding 2014, the number of conversions to Islam among prisoners in Western countries outpaced all other religions, with the overall imprisoned Muslim population (jailhouse converts to Islam plus inmates who entered the prison system as Muslims) growing as a result.
Although many prisoners find religion during their time in custody, the phenomenon of conversion to Islam in prisons is of particular discussion among academics, government and social services, as well as prison system authorities, due to the radical and extremist interpretations of Islam, rather than mainstream moderate branches of Islam, that some inmates are converting into.
Beyond whether or not many or most inmates converting to Islam in prisons are converting by force or coercion, a principal concern is if radical strains of Islam might be deliberately exploiting the prison system as a place for the specific recruitment of violent, anti-social criminal non-Muslim members of society for conversion to Islam.
By targeting prisons, radical streams of Islam can focus on a specific violent criminal subgroup of non-Muslims for their conversion efforts by appealing to the prospective convert's pre-existing negative traits. These negative traits are appealed to with a version of Islam that is violent, anti-social, and criminal not only by the standards of the surrounding non-Muslim host culture, but also by the standards of the majority of Muslims who follow mainstream moderate interpretations of Islam.
According to a consultant fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, non-Muslim "criminals convert to [streams of Islam known for] extremism because it gives meaning to their life and makes them feel better about doing wrong". Former counterterrorism strategist who worked in Iraq, Afzal Ashraf, has stated "that those [non-Muslims] with a criminal past who convert to [streams of Islam plagued by] extremism are an 'ideal fit' [for Islamic extremism] because they are already immoral, and it 'gives a bit of meaning to their otherwise sad, desperate and warped life:' [... I]t allowed them 'to feel what they’re doing is less wrong' and they're trying to pass off criminality, which is 'a major part of their worldview' as an ideology".
Conversions to extremist radical interpretations of Islam in prisons are fueling "concerns about the rising threat of [non-Muslim] criminals being brought under the influence" to commit their predisposed acts of violence in the name of a cause—in this case, a radical interpretation of Islam—endangering not only the general non-Muslim population, but also endangering and injuring the moderate majority of the Muslim population. British "[m]inisters have announced plans to create specialist units within jails to tackle what a government-ordered review last year [in 2016] concluded was a 'growing problem'".
Growth and impact of prison conversions
In some regions, a significant proportion of the growth of the Muslim population through conversion (i.e., growth which is neither the result of Muslim immigration nor natural Muslim birth rates) has been attributed to prison conversions specifically, rather than conversions of persons from the general non-incarcerated population. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the country's total Muslim population exceeded over 3 million in 2016, though that constituted only around 4.8% of the general UK population. Nevertheless, the proportion of UK prisoners who were Muslims in 2016 was 15%, a figure over 300% higher than the share of Muslims in the general population.
Of the millions of Muslims in the general UK population in 2011, only 5,000 were persons who converted to Islam that year. Yet in that same year "[a]round 30% of Muslim inmates are converts [to Islam...] and many of those are, according to previous Home Office research, from black" ethnic backgrounds. In 1999, it was found that in the United Kingdom "37% of Muslim male prisoners were black Muslims compared with 7% [Black Muslims] in the wider (British Muslim) population," with most Black Muslim inmates being converts to Islam. Meanwhile, "less than 1% of [British] Black Caribbeans are Muslims generally, in jail the figure is almost 19%."
Various media outlets have reported of prison guards receiving complaints that Muslim inmates are using threats of physical violence to coerce or force non-Muslim prisoners to convert to Islam. Among these are prisons across New South Wales, such as Kariong prison and Lithgow prison, were complaints were made by prisoners of being forced to convert to Islam, while inmates who refused to convert were physically assaulted.
Chairman of Public Service Association Corrections branch, Steve McMahon, stated the forced conversions are likely 'extremist-related' and he warned that "not enough was currently being done to equip guards with the skills to manage the 'major emerging problem in NSW'." McMahon was quoted as saying "[t]hese people are clearly doing it [converting to Islam] for some reasons other than their devotion to the faith and it is concerning in light of how dangerous some of these individuals have become".
In Goulburn prison, New South Wales Corrective Services confirmed live gun shot was fired in the attempts to break up a brawl which according to prison union representatives was because inmates were being forced to convert to Islam. Corrective services denied the claim it was a religiously motivated incident. However, McMahon indicated the violence had started by a Muslim prisoner attempting to forcefully convert other inmates.
In 2015, within "Victoria and NSW, 8 per cent and 9 per cent of the respective prison populations identify as Muslim, compared with 2.2 per cent and 3 per cent of the general populations. [...] Prison employees, who spoke confidentially to The Weekend Australian, say they are seeing increasing numbers of white and Aboriginal prisoners converting to Islam in jail."
In April 2017, it was reported that most inmates in NSW's Supermax Prison (High Risk Management Correctional Centre) were Muslim, with only a handful of non-Muslims. Located 195km southwest of Sydney, the prison is often referred to as “Super mosque”. Of the Muslim inmates in Supermax, those serving sentences for non-terrorism related violent criminal offences (including murder, etc) are largely inmates "who converted to Islam behind bars". The Australian reported that "Islam has become an obsession for the violent inmates [...] inside Supermax".
Although under France's strict laicity laws it is illegal to count the country's prisoners by religious affiliation, experts agree on the accuracy of an estimate figure published in 2015 that revealed of the 67,500 people behind bars in France that year, an estimated 70% were Muslim, despite Muslims comprising only 8% of the general French population. The experts also noted that in some prisons, like those near Paris and Marseille, the percentage of Muslim inmates is even higher.
According to "Muslim Prisoners' Experiences" report by Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers, conversion to Islam in prisons in the United Kingdom is attributed to converts seeking "support and protection in a group with a powerful identity" and "perceptions of material advantages of identifying as Muslim" in prison, including perks or "material benefits" available only to Muslims "such as more time out of their cell and better food during Ramadan if they become Muslim".
In 2015, it was reported that there was "a surge in Muslim inmates in recent years, with one in five of those serving sentences in Britain's maximum security jails now said to be following Islam, according to union officials. The Prison Officers' Association has put that down to thousands of lags becoming so-called "convenience Muslims" – converting to the religion to deliberately play the system. [ ...] It added they were also being made even more vulnerable to radicalisation."
In 2016, the total Muslim population in the United States reached approximately 3.3 million (0.9% of the U.S. population). Yet in the years between 2001 and 2014 it has been estimate that one quarter of a million U.S. convicts converted to Islam in the U.S. prison system, making prison converts to Islam just from those years (not counting prison converts to Islam before or since then) account for a significant proportion of all Muslims in the United States overall.
In 2011, Pew Research Center data estimated that Muslims made up 9% of the 1,598,780 United States inmates in state and federal prisons despite Muslims being only 0.8% of the general U.S. population in the year prior.
In US federal prisons alone, "tens of thousands of federal prison inmates have converted to Islam while serving time[... While m]ost do not subscribe to a violent interpretation of the faith, [...] it takes only a few to create a threat, according to Mark Hamm, a professor at Indiana State University who specializes in the field of prison radicalization.
“It is not the sheer number of prisoners following extremist interpretations of religious doctrines that poses a threat,” Hamm told FoxNews.com. “Rather, it is the potential for the single individual to become radicalized.”
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- Prison gang
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