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Banged Up For Life

Banged Up For Life

Issue 8 Nov / Dec 2004

First Published on November/December 2004

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In 1999 the UK's first Muslim Adviser to the prison service was announced. At the time the appointment was hailed as a monumental step forward for race relations. However, the appointment also highlighted a more disturbing imperative. It followed revelations of a doubling in the number of Muslim inmates in prisons in England and Wales. This growth had outstripped the 50% rise in the overall prison population in the five years up until 2000. Recent figures show that whereas Muslims represent only 2.7% of the UK population they constitute just over 8% of the total prison population. 

My encounter with former inmates has been a real eye opener not least because the experience has enabled me to dispel previously held myths about prisoners and the prison system. The accounts I encountered revealed a harrowing picture - one of pain, solitude, and a desperate attempt to reconcile duty with right: on the one hand the inmates I spoke to were confronted with a duty to serve a sentence and receive their come-uppance and on the other, a struggle to secure their rights as Muslims so that they can practice their faith. Theirs was also a story of hope: undergoing a process of reform and rehabilitation and a journey of life changing discovery. About three years ago at the age of 16 Lewis Anderson Gittenes got involved in a serious brawl which left a man dead. Lewis Anderson Gittenes, or Abdul Hakim as he now likes to be known, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 6 years.

I put it to Abdul Hakim that a large section of the public felt prison to be a soft touch, “well, obviously they haven’t stepped inside a cell”, he immediately retorted. “Imagine if you were banged up for hours on end and told when you could eat, when you could sleep, when you could go to the toilet”, he pauses and flits a glance at the direction of his mother Maria, “but for me the worst thing of all was not seeing my mother for weeks and eventually when I did see her, it was never the same”. Since that fateful evening, during his trial and sentencing and right up until his eventual incarceration Abdul Hakim has had the support of his family every step of the way and no more than from his mother Maria for whom the whole ordeal has been traumatic. Asked about how she had felt about Abdul Hakim’s imprisonment Maria let out an unexpected cry of despair which took me unawares and made me look up from my notes. As her emotions uncontrollably surfaced and the welled up tears fell down her cheeks, she tentatively explained: “When I learned what he’d done and that he’d be taken away from me I felt as if I had failed him, that I could’ve done a lot more to prevent all this, that I was being judged.”

Maria explained that her greatest fear was that Abdul Hakim wouldn’t be able to handle prison life. Her fear was not unfounded. Prison statistics show that nearly one third of all prison suicides occur within the first week of a prisoner arriving in jail and one in seven within two days of admission. Maria felt that it was important for Lewis to feel that his family would be fine without him. “A lot of the victims of suicide are pushed to taking their own lives because of what they hear about what goes on outside prison,” explains Maria, “family break up, siblings go astray – and they end up blaming themselves. What’s the point of living if you’ve got nothing to look forward to when you leave?” Maria explained that the past three years had been a nightmare but, “for Lewis’ sake I had to be strong, it was the only way I could protect him. Also I had three other children; I had to be strong for them and I couldn’t let them down”.

It’s been just over two months since his release from Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute. Abdul Hakim is on the search for employment and a way of getting his life back on track. “It’s tough out there”, Abdul Hakim tells me with a resigned look on his face, “everywhere I go people hear about my past and refuse me a job on the spot.” Whilst in prison Abdul Hakim attended regular workshops and classes which eventually earned him a City & Guilds qualification in building and bricklaying. “I wanted to enter the bricklaying trade because my Imam in prison told me Prophet Ibrahim was a bricklayer. He built the Ka’ba, the first Qibla for Muslims. My dream is to one day build a mosque.”

Abdul Hakim was introduced to Islam by a “lifer” – an inmate serving a life sentence. “I’m ashamed to say this but I discovered Allah through the weirdest way”. I was puzzled and asked him to elaborate: “I would have discussions about Allah through the blower.” At Aylesbury inmates were confined to tiny cells served with open metal WC pans. “The cells were so tiny that I remember the first time I entered a cell my white Reebok trainers looked so big to me.” The ‘blower’ was a method used by inmates to communicate with their neighbours. By using the ‘bog cleaner’ inmates would empty the pan of the residual water and thereby create a hollow opening. If your neighbouring inmate did the same, and because the pipes were joined, inmates could talk through the WC pan and communicate to each other. By the help of ‘the blower’ Lewis Anderson Gittenes eventually embraced Islam.

 The current incumbent to the post of Muslim Adviser is Ahtsham Ali, with over 13 years of grass root experience in working with Muslim youth, he now advises the Prison Service on Muslim welfare issues. “My role is to balance the needs of Muslim inmates with the rights of the prison service in discharging its duty to enforce security and protect.” Over the years the prison service has made vast strides in accommodating Muslim needs including the provision of prayer and ablution facilities, halal food and separate considerations during occasions such as Ramadan and Eid. “The prison governors have been very accommodating,” Ahtsham assures me, “if we compare our prison system to other prison regimes it’s ahead in terms of its treatment of prisoners. I feel the UK prison service truly recognises the humanity of prisoners.” I’m quickly reminded that beyond these needs is a more important need: “We forget that punishment is one aspect of the prison regime. Individuals are going to be released back into society and there is a need to reform individuals and this is where the teachings of Islam are essential. It aids in the correction process –Islam becomes part of the solution.” Ahtsham explains that a lot of his time is employed in the recruitment of prison Imams. “We aim to recruit home grown Imams that can relate to the prison population. It’s also very important that the Imams have a firm grounding in religious issues.” 

 I asked Ahtsham what he made of the dramatic rise in the Muslim inmate population. “We have to be careful about defining this problem as a ‘Muslim’ problem,” he cautions me, “the prison statistics appear to reveal an over-representation of Muslims in the prison system relative to the population at large. However, the figures say very little else – what they don’t say is which Muslims and from where.”

 Indeed the very term ‘over-representation’ has been described as crude because it rests on oversimplified comparisons. For example, a simple disaggregating of the ‘Muslim’ category reveals that the Muslim prison population is overwhelmingly made up of inmates of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicity, a group which features continuously at the bottom of deprivation indexes and which inhabit some of the most deprived areas in the country.

 Ahtsham points to these socio-economic factors as having fostered criminality amongst some members of the Muslim community. “I’m not saying that these individuals were deprived of choice. Yes, they did choose to commit a crime but we have to examine the factors that have informed their choices. All I’m saying is that some people have better choices than others.”

 Paul Kassman agrees with this assessment. He has worked with the National Probation Service for a number of years and is currently serving a large Bangladeshi clientele in London’s East End. “Of course poverty is a big issue around here but so is the criminal justice system.” Paul explains that the prison statistics represent a snap shot of ‘reality’ at the end point of the criminal justice process. “These figures don’t say anything about what’s happening from the very start.” Paul is alluding to the fact that the figures do not account for the system as a whole from offence to sentence and therefore fail to identify whether the system discriminates against a particular group at various stages.

 Paul’s role with the Probation Service is to mentor ex-offenders and prevent re-offending by breaking the ‘cycle of crime’. It’s a difficult job. Re-offending rates are high with 59% of prisoners reconvicted within two years of release. I decided to visit one of the rare success stories, a young Bangladeshi ex-offender by the name of Luckman Miah.

 Luckman’s reputation precedes him. The streets of the East End abound with tales of this one time gangster. Before our meeting I had developed a vivid picture of him as a burly, butch tough guy. In our actual meeting I was secretly pleased that he didn’t live up to expectations. Luckman spent three years in prison for his part in a bloody gang fight which resulted in near fatalities. “When I came out of prison no one wanted to give me a job,” explains Luckman,“so I decided to use what I had.” Luckman put in good use the business qualification he gained whilst in prison. He is now the proud managing director of a successful chain of mobile phone retail outlets.

 Luckman spends his spare time mentoring on the Shaathi Mentoring Project – a crime diversionary project based in the midst of East London’s Bangladeshi community and run by the Brick Lane Youth Development Association (BLYDA). “Most of my time is spent befriending ex-offenders and gaining their trust through one-to-one interaction. I may spend time helping them touch up their CV’s, applying for jobs or even just chilling out. It’s important that the users build new bonds of trust with a different set of friends because on a lot of occasions people are pulled back into a life of crime by their old associates.” As well as the mentoring side of things the Shaathi project also caters for skill-based training by providing bite-sized courses in IT, literacy and numeracy as well as recreational activities such as excursions. “It’s about empowering individuals by giving them basic skills that many of us take for granted.”

 Luckman explains the influence Islam has had on him and how it is breathing a new lease of life into many of the ex-offenders he works with. He explains the irony, “before I went to prison I hardly cared about praying and stuff and now prayer means everything to me. I’m even planning to complete my faith by getting married in a few months time.” Self-fulfilment and pride is etched on the contours of his face and yet concentrate on Luckman’s eyes and you sense that he has visited the depths of torment and this recount is proving difficult for him. I asked him whether he was still haunted by his prison experiences. His smile withdraws leaving a more sombre expression. Luckman looks away from me, pushes his shoulders back and leans against his leather swivel chair and stares towards the direction of the window. “It’s not as bad as it used to be,” the energy from his voice has escaped, “but to this day I get touchy about my bedroom door being shut or locked.” Luckman continues, “Most people don’t get banged up for life but it feels like that even when you’re out. On the day of my release one of the screws told me - “you can leave prison matey but it’ll never leave you!” - I guess he had a point”. 

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