Prison Conditions at HMP Woodhill - Babar Ahmad
Dear brothers, sisters, friends, supporters and well-wishers,
I have received a number of letters asking me to describe some of the prison life here at Woodhill. I will attempt to highlight some details about life here, bearing in mind that the conditions and regime vary from prison to prison. Since all the Muslim political prisoners here are in the dangerous ‘A Category’, they are housed separately, together with other dangerous prisoners, i.e. those on remand for and serving sentences for murder, armed robbery, drugs, assault and other violent offences. Being a dangerous prisoner has its privileges, in that you always have your own cell (because you might murder your cell mate if you have one!) Therefore, the conditions described forthwith apply to this dangerous category of prisoners, since you will be placed into this category when you come to prison for being a Muslim. Some details are embarrassing, but must be mentioned.
The cell is basically a large toilet. It has a toilet, sink, bed, table, chair, cabinet and small wardrobe. Its dimensions are approximately six metres long by two-and-a-half-metres wide. There is a small window (barred of course) that you can open and close for fresh air and sunlight as you wish. You are allowed to have your own TV (you rent it from the prison for £1 a week) and can also you have your own stereo/CD/radio player sent in by your family.
Association is when your cell-door is opened and you might do any of the following during association time: meet other prisoners either on the landing or each other’s cells, telephone (approved numbers only), get your meal (at meal time), go for a visit (if pre-arranged) with your family, shower etc. Association is about five hours per day on the other three days of the week and seven hours per day on the other three days. [Belmarsh is about two hours association per day for Muslim political prisoners.] The rest of the time, you are locked in your cell, known as “Bang Up.” Sometimes, the Muslim prisoners pray together in one of the cells if association coincides with a prayer time.
There is no concept of awrah (shame, etc) in prison and you are regularly strip-searched. Showers are communal so you have to wear shorts and ideally go when they are empty. When you first arrive at the prison, or leave it, or arrive from court etc. you are strip searched. Likewise, you are also strip-searched before and after a visit from a relative, lawyer, etc. Every month, your cell is searched and you are strip-searched. Strip-searching is only carried out by male officers (two on average), in a private room. They never touch you and you are never naked of all your clothes at any one time. Obviously, your awrah is exposed at some point during the strip search. The above only applies to ‘A-Category’ prisoners; others are strip-searched maybe once in several months. Needless to say, as a Muslim imprisoned for your religion, Allah rewards you every time they humiliate you by this strip search.
Most of the other prisoners are OK, there being like an informal ‘brotherhood’ between prisoners. Some of them actually sympathise with the Muslim political prisoners and curse the establishment when they see the injustice under which Muslim political prisoners are held. There is always a minority of racist inmates but since the Muslims always stick together, they are too afraid to openly display their racism, resorting instead to quiet mumbling among themselves. If anything, one fears evil more from the racist prison officers rather than fellow inmates.
Many of the prison officers are racist and Islamophobic. They have cold hatred in their eyes towards the Muslims. However, since they are in a system that regulates them, they cannot be and are not overtly racist. Therefore, they resort to showing their hatred by making little, routine things difficult for the Muslims. In some cases, they do this to try and provoke a situation in which the prisoner reacts and then they have an excuse to assault him and then send him to the isolated punishment block. This happened to a Muslim prisoner on our wing a few weeks ago and he was beaten up by prison officers who burst into his cell. Obviously, nothing happened (in terms of disciplinary action) to the officers concerned. Otherwise, they will do things like playing around with visit booking, gym usage, trying to delay medical appointments and trying to introduce rules insisting on strip-searching some Muslim prisoners before and after Friday prayers. Although this has not been implemented yet, the prison officers will take any opportunity they can to strip-search Muslim prisoners, as they know that it is offensive to Muslims.
That said, about one in ten officers are friendly, helpful, professional and consequently very popular and well-liked by inmates. Prisoners who have been in prison before say that every time they leave prison, they are worse than when they came in (reference to normal non-Muslim prisoners). This is not because of the facilities but because of the attitudes of the prison officers. One really sees in prison how much of a farce government directives on equal opportunities, racism etc, really are. It is ironic, therefore, when ministers ask themselves why the rate of suicides amongst prisoners in British prisons is high and increasing. No one thinks about looking at the attitudes and the manners of the prison-officers. It can also safely be said that Muslim political prisoners do not leave prison with an increased ‘understanding’ and ‘tolerance’ of their fellow British compatriots, especially when they see them in the figures of racist, skinhead prison officers.
Halal food is available and there is always a variety. Extra food can be ordered via the weekly Argos-style canteen order sheet. All A-Category prisoners have all outgoing telephone calls listened to and recorded; all incoming and outgoing mail is photocopied and searched and all visits recorded (videoed as well when in closed visits where a screen separates the prisoner from his visitors). Legal visits are not meant to be recorded, but everyone knows that they are, secretly.
Friday Prayers is in a hall in the prison; about 100 Muslim prisoners attend. Most are young, of Asian origin and predominantly in for drug-dealing and related offences (firearms, assault, etc.) It is sad to see so many Muslim youths who waste their efforts in such activities. Prison is an excellent environment for renewing one’s Iman and many of these prisoners begin to pray once in prison, only to stop when they go back in their bad company upon release. Since they have lots of spare time on their hands, they are hungry for Islamic books, literature, etc. Sadly, most of the Muslim prisoners here do not even have Qurans, let alone other Islamic books and literature. Muslim organisations have really fallen short in their obligations towards these prisoners, when even £20-£30 would buy a comprehensive ‘starter pack’ for a Muslim prisoner, comprising Quran, prayer mat, hadith books, heart softening books, Sahabah story books etc., may Allah forgive these organisations.
British Political Prisoner Babar Ahmad
5th September 2004