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25 Apr 2024

‘We have a responsibility to those in Prison’ Exclusive interview with The Nejma Collective

‘We have a responsibility to those in Prison’ Exclusive interview with The Nejma Collective

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‘We have a responsibility to those in Prison’ Exclusive interview with The Nejma Collective

More than a quarter of London’s Prison population is Muslim.

With Muslims making up 6% of the UK population, these disproportionate statistics make for a worrying find.

It’s easy to point the finger, replicate the system we’re in and call these Muslims out as a few bad apples. However, we must ask ourselves what’s the reason for this criminalisation, and why the figure shows no sign of slowing down.

Isolating people in prison and confining them away from friends, family and support is not the answer to rehabilitation.

Despite the roots of Islam holding steadfast in treating everyone equally and worthy of help, it is all too common for us to pass judgement on those we see as ‘inferior.’

A group of three Muslim sisters involved in different forms of legal, artistic and activist work felt that something needed to be done. They founded the Nejma Collective earlier this year, an organisation which aims to support Muslims in prison and give them a resource to fund themselves and utilise their voice. We caught up with one of the co-founders of the collective to talk further.

What began the collective?

In 2020, the Black Lives Matter uprisings were going on and there were lots of conversations about injustice in the policing and justice system. At that time I got interested in the conversation about how this links to the Muslim community.

One of the things that motivated me was that 15% of the prison population in the UK is Muslim, and we’re 6% of the UK population overall. In some places like London, it’s 27%. So you have these huge disproportions where they’re maybe three times more representation in prisons.

I knew some of the stuff that’s already out there helping prisoners just from my work.

But those organisations work with specific convictions that many Muslims in prison aren’t there on.

After talking back and forth for two years about what the best way to help is, this Ramadan we decided to run a fundraiser to send money to Muslims in prison in general.

Why do you think it’s important to support Muslim prisoners?

We as Muslims have an important part in advocating for the injustice of the criminal justice system.

We have a responsibility to those in prison. My understanding of justice in Islam is that we are meant to embody the names of Allah. Being kind, merciful and giving people second chances. We believe that ultimate justice comes from Allah.

Lots of people are also isolated by their families and communities once they go into prison because there is a stigma attached to that.

Prisons in the modern form that we see them are where you lock up thousands of people on a massive scale. A lot of people who are poor, who’ve ended up making bad decisions because of their circumstances, end up in prison.

Thinking about the fact that 50% of Muslims in the UK live under the poverty line, we felt really keen about there being a Muslim initiative around prisons.

The system is designed to criminalise people who are vulnerable and I think there are so many levels to it which aren’t considered.

It’s about not replicating those systems that are really punishing and trying to bring in the ethos of Islam into rehabilitating.

I think there’s one study that we were really motivated by as well, specifically regarding Muslim women. It’s by a woman called Sofia Buncy, and she’s done really a lot of good work with Muslim women in prison.

So many people are just cut off entirely, inside and outside prison. There’s a double stigma that you face being a Muslim woman in prison because to be seen as a Muslim woman in prison can be really difficult. Whereas for a man, it may be easier to be allowed back into society.

Another report by the charity, Maslaha were talking about things like jummah being weaponized against Muslim men. These men were being told, ‘If you don’t do this or do that, you’re not allowed Friday prayers.’

You have to rely on the prison guards to wake up for prayers or sehri because you don’t have a clock or a watch, and not being woken up because you did something ‘bad’.

If people can’t advocate for themselves, then surely we should be trying to help one another.

These things are a violation of your religious rights under human rights laws.

6/10 women in prison are victims of domestic violence and it is well known that a disproportionate number of people in prison grew up in foster care. From such statistics, we can see that prison is a place often punishing the most vulnerable.

Why did you feel raising funds for prisoners was the best place to start?

We thought one way we can help people immediately is to raise some sadaqah and send that to people in prison.

When you’re in prison, you don’t have any cash or a bank account. You only have a spends account which you use for buying things.

You can buy things outside the Prison, but they have to be approved by the prison and they come by mail order, so you’re quite limited. Bear in mind, lots of people aren’t going to have a lot of money in prison.

What have you been doing the last few months?

We did a fundraiser during Ramadan to get some money to cover our admin costs.

An organisation called Fearless Futures also contributed to our set-up costs. They were able to pay for an advert to go into newspapers inside every prison in the UK. In the advert, we stated ‘if you’re a Muslim in prison in financial need, please write to us, and we’ll send you an application form.’

We set up a free postal dress. In the last six months, we’ve had almost 100, people write to us. We provide up to 65 pounds in grants to people. All they do is write to us and ask for a grant form. We just ask for simple things that we need to pay through the government system.

We also ask them what kinds of things they need the money for. This is so we can understand what the picture is. I think it’s interesting for all of us outside of prison to know.

Secondly, when they write to us, we can get an insight into what services will be helpful to them. Or if we can’t provide them with what they need, being able to signpost to a different service.

In a nutshell, we’ve been doing three things. Providing support to people in prison, platforming the voices of those people to the wider community who don’t hear from people in prison, and in the long-term, building networks and raising consciousness. So, yeah, we’re just at the beginning.

What kinds of things do prisoners want?

Some people want their own pair of boxers or socks because they get second-hand ones in Prison and don’t feel clean, which is a big thing.

I had a letter from a Muslim woman the other day saying that she needs to keep in touch with her grandparents because they live in Pakistan. So things like phone credit can become really important for people.

Quite a few people have taken the shahada in prison, so they may want prayer beads or a prayer mat, or a Quran translation.

Then you have others who say, ‘my mental health is really bad. I’ve got a lot of depression and kind of really suffering here. Can I  have some craft supplies to distract myself?’

One man wanted to take his driving test to become a HGV driver after he comes out of prison so that then he can support his family and have a job. He wanted books to help him pass his driving test.

So it’s a real range of things.

From feedback, we’re also learning what kinds of services would be important to prisoners.

People are worried about when they leave prison, and how will they afford rent in the cost of living crisis.

They also want support with legalities and legal fees.

Something we really want to do in 2023 is set up pen-pal relationships too.

Seeing someone’s handwriting might be a small thing, but it makes you see their humanity. These are people who have childhoods, friends, family, and none of us would want to be seen as a number or figure.

It’s so nice to receive those letters. going back to those questions about justice, how can it be justice for somebody to be just really suffering and struggling? As Muslims, it’s not our job to write prisoners off. We leave that decision to Allah.

What does it mean to be in Prison as a Muslim?

One of the prophets of Allah was in prison. What does that mean for our understanding of prison? The fact they have something in common with a prophet of Allah.

Many people talk about prison being the University of Yusuf Alayhi Salam, and I think that that’s an interesting thing to think about.

One of the reasons that we call ourselves the Nejma collective is a reference to the stars in the dream of the Prophet. You don’t see the stars all the time yet they’re always shining.

We’re living in a very individualistic capitalist model. It’s very easy as Muslims to replicate that.

But what happens if we try really hard to reject those norms for a second?


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