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Maslaha Briefing 1 - The Hidden Lives of Muslims in Prison


This is the first in a series of briefings from Maslaha on the hidden lives of Muslims in prison. The briefings highlight the daily experiences of Muslims in prison and the different forms of harm they face. The first looks at the use of PAVA spray  - a synthetic pepper spray – in prisons since 2019. It shows the increased use of the spray – essentially state sanctioned violence - against Muslims, year on year, making them one of the most targeted groups. And it points to the failure of the prison system to effectively regulate the use of force against racialised groups.

The Need 

In 2018, PAVA spray was introduced into prisons in England and Wales. By July 2023, 89 out of 109 prisons had completed its rollout, with the government having pledged £2 million investment to equip every prison officer in the adult male estate on the grounds that it could “help to reduce serious harm in prisons”.

However, PAVA is known to cause injury to the eyes, respiratory tract and skin, which can cause severe injury, permanent disabilities and, in rare cases, death.

From an early stage, there were concerns about its use - and the likelihood that it would be used disproportionately and discriminately against people with racialised backgrounds. In 2019, in an equality analysis of the use of force, HMPPS stated: PAVA has been drawn or used more against BAME prisoners. The evidence from wider use of force would suggest that this trend will continue as roll out progresses.

From Maslaha’s own research we know that there’s a culture of Islamophobia and racism across the prison system that needs to be understood alongside data on the increased use of PAVA and the denial of basic human rights. If we read the data without this understanding, we risk compressing a community’s experiences of racism and discrimination into isolated moments or actions that are labelled ‘criminal’ or ‘risky.

What We Did 

We submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Ministry of Justice on the number of times Pava spray has been used in prisons in England and Wales, and on whom - broken down by religion. Such information is necessary to provide a full picture of the use of PAVA to individuals with different religions, which is central to the MOJ’s responsibility to ensure justice and fair treatment for all.

We used this data alongside our own existing analysis – based on interviews, focus groups and observation we’ve conducted with Muslim men and women who have experienced the criminal legal system  - some still in custody while others outside the prison estate.

This analysis relies on being in close proximity to and in community with Muslims in prison rather than on Government and standard charity/academic analysis. This means, for instance, that we understand how Islam can provide a sanctuary and sense of community in a violent environment, rather than as a sign of ‘extremism’.

Thanks to Louise Finer for research advice and data analysis.


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