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

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Rising numbers of Prison Muslims are “fuelling extremism”


Rising numbers of prisoners are becoming ‘convenience Muslims’ leading to heightened tensions with guards and fuelling extremism, the head of the Prison Officers’ Association has warned.

Union general secretary Steve Gillan said that many prisoners were turning to Islam to win benefits, and to gain the status associated with being part of a gang.

He said prison staff were coming under threat from groups of Muslims on a daily basis, and warned that young prisoners were at risk of being radicalised while behind bars.

In 1991 there were 1,957 Muslims serving prison sentences in England and Wales, but numbers had risen to 11,683 by 2013.

Mr Gillan said that many converts, who are known as ‘convenience Muslims’, changed faiths because it meant they were entitled to more time outside of their cells and offered better food.

Muslim prisoners are also excluded from work and education on Fridays so they can attend prayers.

Mr Gillan said that others wanted the status and security of being part of a particular group while in prison, and that it was relatively common for prisoners to leave Islam upon their release.

‘Some people also believe that it is better to have a cult status and belong to a particular gang

‘What we’ve got to guard against is the real threat of the extremists and the radicalisation of young, disaffected prisoners,’ Mr Gillan told The Times. ‘They are the extremists of tomorrow.’

Mr Gillan’s comments came as two Muslim prisoners who were already serving life sentences for murder were found guilty of making threats to kill an officer during a siege at HMP Full Sutton, near York, in the days after the death of Fusilier Lee Rigby.

Feroz Khan and Fuad Awale, both 26, were convicted of threatening Richard Thompson, with Khan also found guilty of inflicting grievous bodily harm on the guard.

Both men, along with another prisoner, David Watson, 27, had been accused of holding Mr Thompson hostage on May 26 last year, and demanding the release of radical preacher Abu Qatada and Roshonara Choudhry, a student who attempted to stab MP Stephen Timms to death in 2010.

They were also accused of demanding to be flown to Afghanistan, the jury heard.

However, they were cleared of the false imprisonment, and Khan was found not guilty of assault occasioning actual bodily harm against another officer, Rachel Oxtoby.

The trial at the Old Bailey had heard that relations between prison staff and some of the Muslim inmates ‘became strained’ in the days after Fusilier Rigby was murdered.

The court was told that Khan had planned the attack after telling another guard that it was a Muslim’s duty to ‘fight until Sharia law is established in every country’.

Jury members also heard that Khan and Awale targeted Mr Thompson, believing him to be ex-British military, and that Khan had beaten the guard, fracturing his eye socket before threatening to kill him.

As Mr Thompson was pinned to his chair Awale pointed a sharp implement by his throat and said: ‘Stop struggling, I’ve killed two people – I’ll kill you’.

Khan had told jurors he planned to take a prison guard hostage in order to stage a high profile terrorist incident ‘perfectly timed’ with the murder of Drummer Rigby.

The convict claimed that he acted in the days after the soldier’s death so he could gain maximum media exposure.
He said he was in ‘constant fear’ of his life following a rise in tension on Echo Wing and that he felt threatened by prison staff and non-Muslim inmates in the wake of the Woolwich murder.

Khan, Awale and Watson were all serving life sentences for murder at the time of the incident, and all three had become devout Muslims following their convictions.

On February 26, 2007, Khan shot his friend Skander Rehman in the back of the head at point blank range after luring him to a park in Bradford – wrongly believing he was having an affair with his wife.

Somali-born Awale was convicted in Janurary last year of the double murder of two teenagers, Mohammed Abdi Farah, 19, and Amin Ahmed Ismail, 18, who were shot in a Milton Keynes drug war on May 26, 2011.

Watson, a white Muslim convert, stabbed to death a security guard at a HMV store in Norwich’s Chapelfield shopping centre after being caught with a stolen CD on December 18, 2006.

The drug dealer murdered Paul Cavanagh after fearing police would find £10,000 of crack cocaine he had in a carrier bag.

Khan and Awale were told they would be sentenced next week.

The Muslim prison population has increased since 2009 by nearly 1,500 – 550 of those in the last 12 months alone.

The court was told that one in three prisoners at Full Sutton are Muslim.

At Long Lartin in Worcestershire the proportion is 20 per cent and in Whitemoor, a top-security prison in Cambridgeshire, more than four in ten prisoners are Muslim.

In Belmarsh prison in London, which houses Lee Rigby murderers Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, one in three inmates is a Muslim.

Mr Gillan said: ‘Incidents like that at Full Sutton are becoming more and more of a daily threat. Prison officers regularly raise issues about Muslim radicalism and the concerns they have about doing their jobs generally against [a backdrop of] gang culture.’