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.

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