'The guards don't run the prison, Islam does': my interview with a 'reformed' Tommy Robinson
By Jamie Bartlett Society Last updated: June 17th, 2014
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Is this the man to preach about English identity?
When Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, arrived at Woodhill prison in January 2014 after being sentenced to 18 months in prison for mortgage fraud, he was told he’d be lucky to make it out alive.
I have been writing to Robinson – whose real name is Stephen Yaxley Lennon – while he’s been in prison to find out what's happened to him, and what he plans to do next.
Woodhill is a maximum security prison. Around 15 per cent of inmates are Muslim (which mirrors national averages – Muslims, who make up 3 per cent of the total population, are overrepresented in British prisons). It also holds what are known as "category A" prisoners – the most serious offenders. This, according to Robinson, includes a number of Islamist extremists, such as those convicted last year of trying to detonate a bomb at an EDL march (data protection law means I'm unable to verify this). Why Robinson – whose crime makes him a category C prisoner – was sent there is not clear. However, it is not unusual for prisoners to be placed in category A prisons if the local prison is full at the time of sentencing. It was not a happy experience.
Robinson claims that Woodhill is a hotbed of Islamic radicalisation. "I had staff telling me that the guards don’t run the prison, Islam does." Radical preachers, he says, are paid £100 for every prisoner they convert. (Although he did not elaborate by whom, why, or how.) These preachers are "enforcing sharia on the wings, preventing non-Muslims from taking showers [with Muslims]". Robinson further claims that a lot of people are converting to Islam inside the prison in order to become part of a Muslim gang, which gives them some protection. "If you convert," he says, "you are automatically protected."
Allegations like this are extremely difficult to prove one way or another. People convert to religions – especially in prison – for all kinds of reasons. However, in 2012 inmates at HMP Whitemoor – the prison with the largest Muslim population in the UK – told Ministry of Justice researchers that they changed their faith for protection or because they were bullied into it; and prison guards said they had a policy of “appeasement” towards the powerful and growing Islamic population, particularly convicted terrorists who were feared to be recruiting future extremists.
Perhaps predictably, given who he is, Robinson tells me that everywhere he went he was threatened with violence from the prison's Muslims. At one point, he says, he was put into a waiting room with some Muslim prisoners and the door was shut. "Almost immediately, I was attacked, beaten and kicked." Robinson fought back, he says, and ended up getting into trouble for fighting. Robinson even alleges this was a set-up by the authorities. "It was clear they were given a chance to get at me." A prison service spokesperson I contacted confirmed that a prisoner was treated for "minor injuries" following an incident with one [rather than several, as Tommy alleges] other inmate on the day in question.
However, a spokesperson from Woodhill Prison strongly denied the other claims made by Robinson, saying "there is absolutely no evidence" for the allegations of Muslims running the prison, or people being paid to convert, and that it is "totally untrue"to say prison staff allowed a prisoner to be targeted. Earlier this year HMP Woodhill was unexpectedly inspected. Overall, Woodhill was found to be a respectful prison, but while the inspection reported tthat he prison had recently made some good changes to ensure prisoner wellbeing, too many prisoners said that they felt victimised – including the Muslim prisoners.
Nevertheless, the problem of Islamist extremism in prisons has recognised by the Home Office. According to a 2011 review of UK’s "Prevent" policy – which aims to steer people away from terrorist ideology – there is a risk of radicalisation in prison, and a lack of interventions to tackle Islamist extremism there. According to HMP Woodhill's spokesperson, staff are trained to spot the signs of extremist or radicalising behaviour, and the prison runs schemes to turn individuals away from extremism. If Robinson is to be believed, and of course he is not the most neutral of observers on this subject, it's not working too well at the moment.
Not all prisons are the same. Soon after this incident, Robinson was moved to HMP Winchester, although whether this was in response to events in Woodhill is not clear. This appears to be quite a different experience. "In Woodhill, I experienced Islam the gang," he said. "In Winchester, I have experienced Islam the religion." He made friends with a lot of Muslim prisoners. "Great lads," he says, "I cannot speak highly enough of the Muslim inmates I’m now living with."
Last weekend, I received a text from Tommy Robinson. He has already been released, after having served almost six months of his sentence. The terms of his early release include the condition that no one involved with the EDL can contact him until the end of his original sentence, which is still 12 months off. His first priority, he tells me, is his family. Like him or loathe him – and for most it’s the latter – his family have received a lot of trouble as a result of his political activity. Robinson is responsible for his own action and reactions he provokes, but his family are not.
After that, expect to see him back in the spotlight. Before incarceration, he’d left the English Defence League and started working with the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think-tank. I’ve interviewed Robinson several times on the outside, and believe that he wants to set up a think-tank or an organisation of his own, something that goes beyond the EDL's obsession with Islam, and broaden out to something about working-class issues – although it’s not quite clear yet would that would entail. He wants to "find a productive way of giving people a voice for their concerns and fears in their community". At the moment, he says, "anyone who complains about their community being changed by immigration is shouted down as being a racist or extremist". Perhaps that was true ten or even five years ago, but I'm not sure it is any more.
Still, I expect he’ll be more motivated than ever. Prison often does that to people. "I will plan a strategy for the best way I can bring experience from my last five years," he says. "We need a new England where all religions and colours feel proud of our flag and recognise how important our identity and culture is." It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment, but whether Tommy Robinson is the man to do that, and if anyone will listen to him, is less certain.http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/jamiebartlett/100013835/the-guards-dont-run-the-prison-islam-does-my-interview-with-a-reformed-tommy-robinson/