Jail Imams Vetted By Security Services And Muslim Books Screened For Code

The security services are conducting background checks on imams who provide religious and pastoral care in jails. The vetting, part of the effort to prevent inmates from being radicalised, is in addition to the routine counter-terrorism checks conducted by the Prison Service and a further check by the Criminal Records Bureau.

A growing number of imams are being appointed to work either full or part time at prisons in England and Wales.

The checks are in response to concerns that prisons may be an ideal environment for al-Qaeda operatives to radicalise and recruit young people.

Another measure aimed at countering extremism is that all imams working in jails must speak English. In addition, prison authorities are spending thousands of pounds translating all texts from Arabic to English to ensure that they do not contain hidden messages. It is understood that all Arabic books, including the Koran, are subject to this vetting.

The shoe bomber Richard Reid, the son of two non-Muslims, converted to violent jihadism after being radicalised at Feltham Young Offender Institution in West London.

Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC, the independent watchdog on antiterrorism laws, identified last year the radicalisation of young inmates as a problem and raised concerns about the activities of a small number of imams.

There are more than 100 convicted terrorists and suspects being held on remand in British prisons at a cost of £3 million a year. Most are in four top-security jails: Belmarsh in southeast London, Woodhill in Milton Keynes, Full Sutton near York and Long Lartin in Worcestershire. But others are housed on normal wings alongside other offenders rather than in special secure units.

The number of Muslims in jail in England and Wales has more than doubled in a decade, to about 10 per cent of the 80,000 population. As a result, when clergy from smaller Christian faiths retire, the Prison Service is using the money to recruit imams either full time or part time.

The moves have caused dismay and some anger, with Christians complaining about the amount of cash and other resources being devoted to Muslims.

Tension has also arisen over the need to provide extra facilities for Muslim prisoners, particularly where there are underused Christian premises in a jail. The Prison Service is spending an estimated £20,000 converting a former Roman Catholic chapel in Wandsworth prison into space for inter-faith work and expanding facilities for Muslim inmates. The prison, in South London, had two Christian chapels — one Roman Catholic, the other Church of England — and a mosque, but the two chapels were larger than needed and the mosque was too small.

Glyn Travis, of the Prison Officers’ Association, said yesterday: “What has happened across the prison estate is that, due to efficiency savings and the rise in Muslim prisoners, the service has had to recruit more imams, which has meant a reduction for other faiths.”

He added: “There has certainly been anxiety when resources for Christians have been reduced.”

By law, the main chaplain of every prison must be a Church of England priest. At present there are 188 full-time and 111 part-time Christian chaplains, 29 full-time and seven part-time imams, one full-time Hindu priest, one part-time Sikh priest and one part-time rabbi.

Faith inside

Anglican 24,168
Roman Catholic 13,304
Free Church 1,258
Other Christian 2,424
Muslim 7,246
Buddhist 1,237
Sikh 543
Hindu 370
Jewish 197
Others 304
Nonrecognised faiths 309
No religion 24,826

Source: Home Office; June 2005 figures