Religion offers the fresh start many are looking for

For the first time, according to a recent report, Catholics outnumber Anglicans in British prisons. Whereas half of prisoners were Anglicans in 1993, only 17 per cent now are. There were 270 more Catholic prisoners in British prisons than Anglicans a couple of months ago, and nearly as many Muslims, the figures being 14,961, 14,691, and 13,100 respectively. There were 26,443 prisoners who claimed to be of no religion.

This latter figure explains in part the fall in the number of Anglicans: it used to be that if a prisoner said he was of no religion, he was marked down as being CofE. This always seemed to me of ill omen for the Church of England, but was also rather endearing. Clearly, no belief was deemed necessary to be an Anglican, which hardly augured well for the future of the Church: for surely no such institution could long survive so weak an attachment, or at any rate a reputation for so weak an attachment, to any kind of doctrine, practice or belief? On the other hand, it suggested that the notion of a fanatical Anglican was a contradiction in terms, and in an age of screaming certainties of all kinds, this was not entirely unwelcome.

These days, however, if someone claims to be of no religion he is marked down as such. At first sight, this might appear an increase in the accuracy of the statistics, but it raises the question of what it is to be Anglican, Catholic, Muslim or of any other religion. (Incidentally, the contrast between the rates of imprisonment of Muslims, on the one hand, and Hindus and Sikhs, on the other, is one that is seldom remarked upon.)

Is a man an Anglican merely because he is baptised, married and has his funeral in an Anglican church? How far is his character marked by such ceremonies, so few and far between?

Religion in prison is a strange and interesting phenomenon. Men who in ordinary circumstances would not be seen dead in a church (apart from at their funeral) request to go to the prison chapel, irrespective of the denomination for which it is being used at the time. They go to vary the monotony of their days; they go to deal in drugs and hatch plots. One prisoner whom I knew used it to commit suicide en route. Being under constant watch against suicide, he could not be refused his request to attend chapel: he escaped his escort, clambered up a wall and threw himself down headfirst.

Contrary to what many might have supposed, the Muslims in the prison in which I worked, of whom there were many, seemed largely indifferent to their religion, except in one respect. As far as I could tell, the prison imam, a mild-mannered man of peaceful disposition, had little influence over them; and they were the reverse of pious. But they were very keen on the system of forced marriages which, rightly or wrongly, they associated with their religion, and were very angry if their sisters were reported to be enamoured of someone not chosen for them. The system was highly convenient to them; it provided them with a sexual partner and domestic, while leaving them free to participate in the general debauchery of a British city. A Muslim prisoner who testified for the prosecution in a case of so-called honour killing had to be removed because of the threats he received: he had let the side down, as it were.

The question of the relation between religious conversion and abandonment of criminality was a complex one. I had observed, along with others, that religious conversion, or at least an increased observance of the faith into which he was born, was often a prelude to a prisoner going straight. But whether the religious conversion caused his decision to go straight, or was a consequence of it, was uncertain and difficult to disentangle.

The statistics are quite clear: as prisoners grow older, towards their 40th year, their rate of imprisonment declines. This might, of course, be because, now more experienced in the craft of crime, they are caught less often; but I do not think so. Crime is overwhelmingly a young man’s game; you need physical dexterity and vigour to burgle, rob and assault. Only a small minority of prisoners are imprisoned for the kind of crimes older men commit. No: criminality is a propensity that definitely declines with age, irrespective of whatever efforts have or have not been made to “rehabilitate” prisoners. I have heard many a prisoner say, “I can’t do my bird no more” – their bird being prison argot for their time in prison.

But some prisoners need a pretext to give up their life of crime. They don’t like to feel that they have been defeated, as they see it, by the “system”. This, I think, explains the attraction of Islam, particularly to black prisoners. Like other ageing men, they want to give up crime, either for ethical or physical reasons. At the same time, they retain a hostile or at least unfavourable attitude to the society in which they grew up, justifiably or not. It is not, therefore, to their parents’ (particularly their mothers’) Pentecostal Christianity to which they are drawn, but to a religion that they know disquiets or frightens the majority of the population round them. It allows them to give up crime while feeling that they have not surrendered to the criminal justice system: they can have their cake and eat it. Another advantage is that their womenfolk may follow them. It stabilises their relationships, which until then have usually been conspicuously unstable. Only a few are drawn to terrorism.

This is not to say that religious conversion (including to Buddhism, if Buddhism be counted a religion rather than a philosophy) may not be a real cause of going straight. Indeed, it is my belief that the problem of crime, at least in a society such as ours, is fundamentally a spiritual one, using the word in a broad sense. It is a question of how life is to be lived, what its purpose is, and what our duty is to our neighbour. These are the questions that religion answers, once faith is accepted. It is only to be expected that those who undergo religious conversion also give up the life of crime (except for the kind of belief than enjoins violence to others as a religious duty).

In my experience – from one prison alone, so it may not be at all representative – efforts at evangelisation were slight, and mainly Muslim. But there was another kind of evangelisation, namely that by events. A catastrophic illness, suffered either by the prisoner, or sometimes by his mother, changed utterly his attitude to life. He suddenly bethought himself. What would either he or his mother look back on at their deathbeds? He would realise that he had lived his life badly, that he had brought only suffering to others and no real joy to himself.

Most prisoners are not the psychopaths so beloved of Hollywood, but weak individuals who choose the wrong path. But they do know that it is the wrong path: and therefore there is hope of change even before sheer exhaustion sets in.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and retired prison doctor and psychiatrist. His latest book is The Knife Went In: The Decline of the English Murder

This article first appeared in the September 1 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here