The Lammy Review in 2017 drew attention to inequalities among black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system. It also flagged the over-representation of Muslims in prisons. Research by Dr Ryan Williams explores the sensitivities around this topic.

The higher up the criminal justice system you go, the greater the proportion of people identifying as Muslim

Ryan Williams

Dr Ryan Williams has become accustomed to uncomfortable moments. His research into the lived experiences of people in the criminal justice system (CJS) has taken him into high-security prisons to interview people convicted of serious crimes, and to East London to speak to recently released prisoners. All his interviewees were Muslim.

He describes this area of study as highly problematic: “I was working with people who often feel doubly marginalised – as individuals with a criminal record and seeking to rebuild their lives, and as Muslims living in British society and having to fight against stereotypes. You run the risk of bringing genuine harm to people by failing to reflect their complex life realities.”

Williams is based at Cambridge’s Centre of Islamic Studies and at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. An interest in Islam and society took him into a domain usually studied by criminologists. His interviews explored the journeys, values and struggles of people caught up in the CJS. They took place in prisons (including segregation units), probation offices, cafés, mosques and ‘chicken shops’.

In 2017, an independent review by the Rt Hon David Lammy put race equality in the spotlight by highlighting a rise in the proportion of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) young offenders in custody: from 25% in 2006 to 41% in 2016. Lammy stated that his “review clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias – including overt discrimination – in parts of the justice system”.

The same review drew attention to the over-representation of Muslims in the CJS. Between 2002 and 2016, the proportion of Muslims in the prison population doubled.

“The higher up the CJS you go, the greater the proportion of people identifying as Muslim,” says Williams. “More than 40% of the prisoners in the high-security prison that I was working in were Muslim.”

While the over-representation of Muslims in the CJS forms the backdrop to Williams’ research, his work looks not at the causes of crime but at the experiences of offenders as they serve their sentences and reflect on their lives. “By asking questions around belonging and how people can lead a good life, we begin to see what might help them in the future,” he says.

Rapport with participants was key. He says: “In effect, they interviewed me to ensure that I wouldn’t reinforce a ‘one-dimensional’ view of them as Muslims.”

As one interviewee remarked: “There’s more to life than the little bits that you read in the paper.” The interviewee had observed other people taking an interest in Muslims in prison: “They’re all asking the same questions” about discrimination and radicalisation, and “[I’m] just standing there thinking, like, ‘is that all you want to know?”’

Through his interviews, Williams came to learn how difficult it is for people to put their finger on inequality and discrimination. It was often indirect, found in everyday examples like (says one interviewee) being refused a toilet roll by a member of staff but seeing a white prisoner acquire one with ease. For white Muslim converts, there was a sense that being a Muslim was incompatible with being British – they were seen as ‘traitors’ to their country, reinforcing the view that Islam is a ‘foreign’ religion.

For one interviewee, the rise of Islamophobia was both tragic and laughable. He observed: “It’s really sad. People are scared of Muslims now and it makes me laugh because I think to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, what are you scared of?’” He also pointed out: “Everybody knows a Muslim. You probably work with one. You might live next door to one. Your neighbour’s cool. Your work colleague’s cool.”

Since 9/11, and more so in the wake of recent attacks in London, the term Muslim has become linked with negative associations.

“‘Muslim’ is a badge applied to offenders in a way that masks other aspects of their identity – for example their roles as sons, brothers and fathers. For much of the popular media, it’s a blunt term that hints heavily at terrorism,” says Williams.

Through guided conversations, Williams encouraged his interviewees to talk about the things that meant most to them, sharing their feelings about family, community and society. He explains: “Broadly speaking, my work is about people’s lives as a moral journey – one marked by mistakes and struggle – and how this connects to belonging and citizenship in an everyday sense.”

The project was sparked by a conversation that Williams had four years ago with a Muslim offender of Pakistani heritage who’d been brought up in the UK. “He said that he felt so discriminated against that he felt he couldn’t live here any longer. To me, that was shocking,” says Williams.

“It made me wonder how the CJS might serve to help people feel like citizens and rebuild their lives. What if we brought the end goal of citizenship into view, rather than focusing exclusively on risk to the public? How would this change how people see themselves and how others see them?”

Williams’ interviews revealed that, for many, learning to be a good Muslim was also tied with being a better citizen, and each had their own way of going about this. “For one person, day-to-day practices of prayer kept them away from crime. For another, for whom crime was less of a struggle, practising zakat (charity) by providing aid to the Grenfell Tower survivors enabled him to fulfil a need to contribute to society,” he says.

He interviewed 44 Muslim men, sometimes interviewing them more than once, and triangulated his data with conversations with prison and probation staff.

 “My approach was experiential-based – qualitative rather than quantitative. I didn’t have a set of boxes to fill in with numbers. I used one standard survey tool from research on desistance from crime, but I found it removed richness and detail from people’s complex stories. Participants welcomed the chance to reflect more deeply on their lives.”

An individual’s faith journey, argues Williams, cannot be separated from the complex reality they find themselves in. Faith is always interpreted and filtered through our experiences and can help to construe a positive view of what it means to live a life worth living. As one participant observed: “I want to actually do some things now, like goodness, like volunteering, helping people out, helping the vulnerable… God loves that.”

Williams says that as a fellow human being he empathises with this improvised desire to find meaning in life by doing good in the world. He says: “The most profound thing to emerge from my conversations is that leading a good life is hard – and harder for some than for others.”

In April 2018, Williams organised a workshop ‘Supporting Muslim Service Users in Community and Probation Contexts’ for frontline staff and volunteers. Probation officer Mohammed Mansour Nassirudeen, who attended the workshop, said: “We need Ryan and researchers like him to give us the bigger picture. I believe this would help bring about desired outcomes for service users from BAME backgrounds, which is long overdue.”

Adds Williams: “My contribution is simply to get people to think about the issues in a different way, to facilitate discussion drawing on people’s own strengths and expertise, and then see where it takes us.”

In July 2018, Williams won a Vice-Chancellor’s Impact Award for his work.

Ryan's research has been incorporated into: guidelines on countering prison radicalisation, adopted by the European Commission in 2017; the evidence base for the Lammy Review on equality and implementing its recommendations; a course on the Good Life Good Society, adopted in 2016 in a high security prison. Read Ryan's This Cambridge Life interview here. 

The workshop ‘Supporting Muslim Service Users in Community and Probation Contexts’ was funded by the Arts and Humanities Impact Fund, and supported by the School of Arts and Humanities and the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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