Britain’s most racist prison

kevan thakrar

‘I am of Pakistani ethnicity, a practising Muslim and a Terrorism Act convict. The first two attributes are why the CPS charged me under the Terrorism Act, as opposed to the Communications Act (let alone respecting my purported human right to Freedom of Expression).’ BILAL AHMAD writes.

I was born and raised in the UK; yet the sentencing remarks directed at me included: ‘You purport to be a British citizen but what you stand for is totally alien to what we stand for in our country.’ I was disassociated from the country of my birth due to my ethnicity and religion before being sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment, for what was essentially a public order offence at most.

This alienation and marginalisation sets the backdrop to how Muslims are systematically subjugated and dehumanised in what is fundamentally an institutionally racist criminal ‘justice’ system.

I have now spent time in ten prisons and the most racist by far is Strangeways in Manchester. I spent two and a half years there, during which time prison officers and governors ‘radicalised’ me more than any cleric probably ever could.

Upon reception in November 2011 from Belmarsh, I hadn’t even reached the wing before I was told by a senior officer in the prison’s counter-terrorism unit that Muslims are prohibited from wearing our religious cap (topi) outside of their cells.

When I was located to a wing, they ensured I was isolated from anyone with a similar background to me. Officers would then disclose to local gangs of friends that I am a ‘terrorist’ as implicit incitement. On more than one occasion officers located confirmed EDL supporters in the neighbouring cell.

For months officers separated my incoming mail from everyone else’s and kept it in the wing office for weeks at a time, refusing to issue it without a directive from ‘security’, which never seemed to come.

They then imposed a blanket ban on my correspondence with any other Muslim prisoner or support network. This was intended to isolate me further.

On visits at Strangeways prisoners are prohibited from standing to greet their visitors. There is no reason for this, which is why the policy doesn’t exist in any other high security prison. If you stand to hug your family, you face a barrage of officers rushing over, barking at you and your visitors to sit down, followed by threats to terminate the visit. For over two and a half years I was prevented from standing to hug my mother, who had to make a round trip of over 140 miles to visit. Standard visiting time at Strangeways is only one hour (less time for entrance procedures). Due to the distance and the fact my mother is diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I routinely applied for an hour’s extension (an ‘extended visit’). The residential governor regularly rejected these applications or they went ‘missing’ and I had to cancel the visit.

On one occasion my sister was wearing a dupatta (a cultural shawl that Asian women wear). The officers told her she would have to remove it or be refused entry. So they began to racially discriminate against my family members, none of whom have a criminal record.

Another way they worked to disrupt my family ties was by repeatedly and arbitrarily suspending my family’s phone numbers from the PIN phone system. On one occasion they suspended my family’s landline for three months. I protested with a hunger strike, which lasted for nine days. I recommenced eating after it became clear they were not going to reinstate my family’s number; they would rather I starved to death. They considered my distress an achievement and I began to develop symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (apathy and disorientation, severe impairment of short-term memory, often with confabulation). Throughout this hunger strike the national lead psychologist on ‘extremism strategy’ (who is based in Strangeways) didn’t once come to check my well-being. In her later risk assessment reports she didn’t once highlight the reason I went on hunger strike.

Indeed, it was at the psychologist’s behest that the counter-terrorism governor, flanked by a mob of screws, illegally confiscated my legal documentation and permanently deprived me from applying to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. I responded by formally disengaging from my sentence plan (eg psychology programmes) in October 2012; to this day I have maintained my disengagement.

In February 2013 I was given a wing job. I wore my topi on the landing. When I refused to remove it, I was sacked and my privilege level downgraded. The so-called ‘equality team’ colluded with this blatant discrimination, portraying me as ‘disobeying an order’ – never mind that it was discriminatory.

In February 2014 I sent a judicial review pre-action protocol on the topi prohibition, which had been in effect since 2010. A few days later they finally rescinded it.

In March 2014 officers began inciting prisoners to challenge my wearing the topi. This led to a physical altercation instigated by at least three racists. I was assaulted on the landing, but the screws just stood around as if nothing happened. I then defended myself and only then did the alarm go off and the screws restrained only me. I was stripped of all privileges (‘Basic level’) for over a month; the assailant was only downgraded from ‘Enhanced’ to ‘Standard level’ (thus retaining some privileges). I was placed on an anti-bullying scheme for over two weeks; the assailant was on it for six days.

The incidents in this letter are just a fraction of the protracted experience of just one Muslim prisoner. The very many grievances that are now deeply seated within me will remain when I am released from prison on probation next year. By mistreating me, the criminal ‘justice’ system has failed me and ultimately failed the public.

The Criminal Justice Act 2003 details the purposes of sentencing, which include reduction of crime, reform and rehabilitation of offenders, and protection of the public. Strangeways prison has guaranteed these purposes will never be met. But the good work of people like the RCG proves to political prisoners like me that these public servants do not necessarily act on behalf of everyone, and therefore I write to pay homage to the RCG for its article ‘Oppression of Muslim prisoners in British prisons’ (June/July 2015) and personally to verify the content of it.

Bilal Zaheer Ahmad A4773AY HMP WAKEFIELD, 5 Love Lane, Wakefield WF2 9AG

FRFI 246 August/September2015


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