Academics, imams and prison workers widely agree that conversions to Islam are now commonplace in Australia’s prisons.
Robbie Maestracci, a community outreach worker with the Islamic Council of Queensland, pays weekly visits to Muslim inmates in the greater Brisbane area. He believes there is a prominent trend of conversions to Islam among detainees.
“Without a doubt there is … We’re constantly being made aware of new names of people who have embraced Islam or names of people who are wanting to embrace Islam. At least every two weeks, there’s another name or two being added to our list,” Maestracci says.
Michael Kennedy, a veteran detective of 20 years, knows more than most about the subject. Since leaving the New South Wales organised crime squad he has studied Islam and incarceration extensively as an academic at the University of Western Sydney.
Kennedy has maintained contact with a “lot of good crooks” met in his former life. They exchange letters now and again. His correspondents drift in and out of jail, giving him a unique insight into the place of religion in prison.
“They’re pretty easy to talk to. One in particular I’m thinking of, I said [name removed], ‘did you get religious?’”
“He said ‘Oh no, but a lot of people do, it’s the way you get by. It’s the way you’re able to deal with what’s happened to you.’
“You’re isolated from all the people that you know in your life, whether good people or bad. You need to connect with someone about something.”
In this reading, the discovery of religion is essentially a coping mechanism, and a way to forge a shared identity in the dog-eat-dog world of prison.
Kennedy says more often than not it’s a positive influence, which can open a pathway to rehabilitation. It gives inmates some semblance of structure and provides a motive to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
“I actually don’t think it’s a bad [coping mechanism], but some would argue that it is,” he said. “If you think about it, from my point of view, it gives them a bit of hope.”
The best publicly available information comes from a 2013 census of NSW prisoners, which suggests Muslims remain a minority, although one that is overrepresented. The census showed Muslims accounted for about 9.3% of the state’s prison population compared with 3.2% of the NSW population.
“Inmates suspected of, or identified as, holding radical views are closely monitored by experienced and well trained staff, and moved away from other inmates if necessary.”
But Jones believes there are risks in segregating already radicalised offenders from the general prison population, an approach not adopted in Victoria, where they are dispersed.
A spokeswoman for Corrections Victoria said it disperses prisoners “wherever practicable” and “according to their assessed level of risk and individual needs”.
“This approach aims to prevent extremist views being continually reinforced by like-minded prisoners,” she said.
Ali Kadri, the vice-president of the Islamic Council of Queensland, believes there is no real evidence suggesting prisoners are becoming radicalised.
He believes, ultimately, religious conversions are a force for good.
“Not just that, we find people who have always been socially isolated and are living a life in crime finding faith in prison and feeling apart of a community, so they have more motivation to behave than they did before,” Kadri says.
“We believe that faith, not just Islam, has the potential to help people who are in that situation, to find the right path.”