Exploring the nature of muslim groups and related gang activity in 3 high security prisons

A report summarising a qualitative study to explore the nature of Muslim groups and related gang activity in 3 high security prisons.


Understanding the nature and drivers of prison groups and gangs and the impact they can both have on the prison environment is important for the management of establishments, safety of staff and prisoners and also for offender rehabilitation.

The few UK studies exploring prison gangs suggest there is some gang presence but perhaps not to the same extent as that found in the US, where prison gangs are highly structured and organised with considerable control over the prison.

Research in an English high security prison showed that Muslim gangs, formed for criminal purposes, can present both a management challenge due to criminal behaviour and also sometimes through the risk of radicalisation. However, prisoners who form into friendship groups for support, companionship and through shared interests should not be confused with gangs formed for criminal purposes. It is therefore important to understand the differences between prison group and gangs and distinguish between them.

This study aims to further our knowledge in this area by defining and describing prisoner groups, exploring the presence and nature of prison gangs and the impact they have on prison life within three High Security prisons in England. A qualitative approach was used with interviews being conducted with 83 randomly selected adult male prisoners located on the main wings and 73 staff from a range of disciplines across the three establishments. Interviews were analysed using thematic analysis that was both inductive and deductive. The findings should be viewed with a degree of cautions as the views presented may not be representative of all prisoners or staff.

The study found the main prisoner group to be a large, diverse group of prisoners who connected through a shared Muslim faith. Respondents were questioned on the presence of other prisoner groups but none were considered to be as dominant or significant when compared to the Muslim group. Membership offered many supportive benefits including friendship, support and religious familiarity.

A small number of prisoners within the group were perceived by those interviewed to be operating as a gang under the guise of religion and were reported to cause a significant management issue at each establishment. The gang had clearly defined membership roles including leaders, recruiters, enforcers, followers and foot-soldiers. Violence, bullying and intimidation were prevalent with the gang, using religion as an excuse to victimise others. The gang was perceived to be responsible for the circulation of the majority of the contraband goods in the establishments.

Gang Leaders. Leaders were reported to have their own hierarchy with a leader for the entire establishment, each wing and landing. They tended to be born into the faith, were often Arabic speaking and perceived to have a greater knowledge of Islam, presenting themselves as scholars to others. However, this was questioned by some prisoners with knowledge of the faith, as one Muslim prisoner stated: ‘People who’re leading them aren’t intelligent. They read the Koran and make it fit with their life and their own beliefs. They don’t fit their life around the religion.’

Motivations for joining the gang were varied but centred on criminality, safety, fear, protection and power. Comparisons were made with historic prison gangs and respondents acknowledged that gang problems, especially in the high security prisons, were something staff had always had to manage and would continue to require careful supervision.

The study highlighted the complex nature of groups and gangs in high security prisons in England. This report discusses how the findings can be used to inform management approaches, such as ensuring systems are in place to identify and support prisoners who are particularly vulnerable, improve staff training and education, and the use of culturally matched mentors and external experts.

1. Summary 3
2. Context 5
3. Approach 7
3.1 Participants 7
3.2 Materials 7
3.3 Procedure 8
3.4 Analysis 8
4. Results 10
4.1 Presence, nature and purpose of Muslim groups and gangs 10
4.2 Gang structure and roles 11
4.3 Motivations for joining a gang 13
4.4 Behaviour of gang 14
4.5 Impact of gangs on prisoners and staff 15
4.6 Leaving the gang 16
5. Conclusions 17 References

Read the Report