Muslim women sent to prison face both a triple disadvantage of gender, race, and faith discrimination, and a double sentence of jail followed by a lifetime of community stigma, experts have said.
As a landmark report published on Friday concluded accountability needed to be bolstered across the criminal justice system for the treatment and outcomes of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, BuzzFeed News was told that Muslim women are left “under the radar” in prisons.
Muslim women in custody have increased as a proportion of total female prisoners from 5.2% to 6.3% since March 2014, as prisoner numbers rise overall.
Speaking to us in Bradford, Sofia Buncy, coordinator of the Muslim Women in Prison project, said that there is acute need for prison service providers to be aware of the culturally sensitive provision that is required, and that understanding of community dynamics was currently insufficient.
Buncy launched her pilot project in 2014 at HMP New Hall in Wakefield and Askham Grange in North Yorkshire after a governor told her she had noticed that some of the Muslim residents at the prison were quiet, and said there was “something happening with Muslim residents in prison and we're not sure what".
There was concern that prisoners were not accessing services and women were not being visited regularly by family members, and in some cases not at all.
Her report, Muslim Women in Prison (Second Chance Fresh Horizons), the first of its kind to focus on this particular demographic, included the testimonials of 17 women from diverse ethnic and cultural Muslim backgrounds, with the youngest offender 20 years old and the oldest 63.
It was cited in the major review published on Friday of the treatment and outcomes for BAME prisoners in which David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, outlined over 30 recommendations.
While BAME women make up 11.9% of the women’s population in England and Wales, they account for 18% of the women’s prison population.
Muslims account for 5% of the UK population but around 15% of the male prison population. This is not due to terrorism offences, which accounted for just 175 offenders between 2002 and 2012.
Lammy's review pointed out a gap in official data concerning religion, as the courts do not record religious identity. Prisons do, however, and recorded the number of Muslims in prison increasing by almost 50% over the last decade from 8,900 to 13,200.
Buncy said there was little attention on the challenges of rehabilitation of this particular minority group, and even less for the 250 Muslim women in custody.
Her report concluded that there appears to be “no structured support for Muslim women ex-prisoners within support agencies”, and that at the same time some Muslim women ex-prisoners had multiple additional concerns, such as Islamic divorce, inheritance, access to children, legal matters in countries of their origin, and immigration status.
Buncy said her project raises awareness with service providers of the multiple layers of discrimination Muslim women face in the criminal justice system. "I really thought it was important to look at the third dimension – of being black, Asian or minority ethnic, of being a female offender, and also being a Muslim, because that brings with it its own baggage," she said.
"Let's be honest, the Muslim community is very much in the dock at the moment, and anything that visibly suggests you are Muslim … will have an impact on how you are judged – whether that is at sentencing stage or whether that is within the system."
At HMP Foston Hall, where 23% of BAME women are Muslim, 9% of BAME women said they had been victimised by other prisoners because of their religious belief and 5% of BAME women said they had been victimised by staff for this reason, according to figures cited in a recent report by the Prison Reform Trust.
Muslim women in custody said in the report that things that happened on the outside were projected internally. "They have televisions in prison, that negativity will then spread within prisons where it can be difficult for Muslim women when they are overtly Muslim to be in that environment," the project coordinator said.
Buncy said she had been told of incidents of namecalling – that women had been called terrorists and Muslim women wearing hijab had been told to "take that rag off your head".
The triple disadvantage of race, gender, and faith discrimination faced by Muslim women prisoners was something "outside mainstream providers are not comfortable talking about" and are not equipped with the knowledge to talk about, she said.
And after walking free, many prisoners also faced stigma from their own communities. One prisoner who had been supported with child placement said: “They [prison officials] don’t get that when I’m released their duty stops at the gate, but I get another sentence from the community and that lasts forever.”
Buncy said many of the women she works with have difficult and vulnerable backgrounds: “Some of them have been through domestic violence, sexual violence – there were stories of some women being groomed, been through forced marriage.” Almost half of women in prison reported having suffered from domestic violence, according to Women in Prison, a charity supporting women in prison.
There was little chance of rehabilitation and reintegration of Muslim ex-offenders once released, because of the lack of support, said Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor for the North West of England, who added that the few charities working in this area were "suffering financially".
He called for a deadline for a more diverse justice system, "otherwise people will not have the sense of urgency".
Afzal said: "The issue for me is that Muslim women in prison are doubly damned: They're damned because they are convicted and in prison, but invariably, their families want nothing to do with them and so when they come out very few of them will have the support networks that others will have."
He said a substantial number of Muslim women were in prison for drug-related or fraud-based offences, and that this was "a taboo subject as far as the community is concerned".
"It is not on anybody's radar, and these women were imprisoned and will have little chance for rehabilitation and very little chance of reintegration once they're released," he said.
Muslim women in prison are treated like the "black sheep" in the community, a long-time Muslim prison chaplain who works with both men and women prisoners said.
The chaplain, who did not wish to be named, said: "With the men, whatever they've done, they'll go in and out, in and out, and they will hide it. If a woman goes into prison, some of them will be abandoned, sometimes they'll have nowhere to go, or they are pointed out as the black sheep and not be accepted by the community or the family.
"It's very sad to see, and I say it's a lack of education and intolerance."
Many of the women the chaplain had encountered were domestic violence victims, she said, including one case where a woman had been arrested for attacking her abuser.
The chaplain said there had been cases of women ending up in prison for threats and blackmail as a result of forced marriages.
"Then you get cases where they say they have seen so much abuse mentally, physically, and sexually [that they're] not in the position to take it any more, and in such a state of mind that they act in a horrific criminal way and end up with life sentences," the chaplain said.
In many so-called honour-related cases, South Asian Muslim women ended up in prison for pleading guilty on behalf of their husband, brothers, or family in cases of fraud or money laundering.
Ahead of the Lammy review, Buncy said she was encouraged that it acknowledged and “picked up the interplay of religious and cultural complexities which may bear on the sentencing and post sentencing life of Muslim women prisoners".
Aisha Gani is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Aisha Gani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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