It will come as no surprise to learn that the prisoner population in the UK is suffering immensely during the Covid lockdown. As if they weren’t cut off and isolated sufficiently before the virus, many now find themselves locked up in their tiny cells for 23.5 hours a day. They have a bed, a desk, a chair, a toilet, and a mind-numbing stream of daytime TV for intellectual stimulation. No wonder a fifth of male prisoners have attempted suicide, and prisoners are 3.7 times more likely to take their own lives than the average person.
A new report from the Centre for Social Justice highlights the dire conditions in UK prisons, and the desperation many prisoners feel after being totally disconnected from their partners, children and loved ones. There is a facility for video calling, but prisoners are limited to just one 30-minute call per month.
The Report tells us that prisoner education has all but stopped, with teachers banned from visiting prisons that are locked down. There is no online learning due to the paucity (or complete absence) of internet provision. It is one thing to prevent prisoners’ potential internet abuse, but quite another to deny them access to their families and education: “20-30% of prisoners have a learning disability in some form, 47% have no qualifications, and three fifths leave custody with no identifiable educational improvement. Recidivism is huge, costing the taxpayer an estimated £18.1 billion per year.”
Describing the isolation experienced by many prisoners, one partner said: “My three-year-old grandson hasn’t seen his dad for 11 weeks and yesterday he said, ‘Daddy has gone now.’ The impact on the children and the parents is heart-breaking.” One prisoner told interviewers: “If I don’t see my family I will lose them, if I lose them what have I got left?”
The work of prison chaplains has rarely been more crucial or more appreciated by the abandoned, the lonely, the forsaken and the unlovely.
Which is why you might wonder at the plight of Pastor Paul Song, who has spent 20 years of life serving faithfully in the task of prisoner rehabilitation and prison pastoral care. That was until he was “forced out of his position after being accused of espousing ‘extreme’ Christian views”, as the Times reported in 2018. “Paul Song said he came under pressure at Brixton prison in south London after a Muslim replaced a Christian as managing chaplain, and was dismissed on the basis of false claims by a prisoner.”
The new managing chaplain, Imam Mohammed Yusuf Ahmed, took on his new role in 2015, and reportedly objected to Paul Song holding Bible meetings, talking about his faith, and sharing something of the hope which might be found in Christ. Apparently, even the ‘Alpha Course’ was extreme to this Imam, possibly because it contains a sliver of biblical truth. There was also a false allegation that Pastor Song had called one prisoner a terrorist, which is a surefire way of getting a Christian sacked: there’s no place for Islamophobia; the Imam must be believed.
The legal challenge seems to have persuaded the prison to look into what had happened properly. In May, Paul agreed to pause the legal proceedings while the prison service carried out an independent review.
The governor of another prison, Sara Pennington, met with Paul to hear his side of the story. Her report then concluded that Paul’s exclusion from the prison was not reasonable, and recommended for Paul to be reinstated as a volunteer chaplain.
The curious thing is, he was never quite restored. He had spoken to the Mail on Sunday about Islamic extremism in the prison, and what he himself had experienced at the hands of radical Islam. He was summarily banned from his ministry as a result, not just from HMP Brixton, but from all prisons, for 10 years.
His crime was whistle-blowing.
It is a curious thing indeed for such an experienced Christian chaplain to be banned from ministering in all prisons, simply for telling the truth about what was going on in one of them. The Ministry of Justice had made its own 45-page management report about Islamic extremism in HMP Brixton, so the concerns weren’t unknown. They were, however, manifestly unaddressed. “Why is it that the highest authorities side with a discredited Imam over a Christian chaplain who has volunteered his services in our prisons without complaint for over 20 years?” asked Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre.
We know the answer, of course: whistleblowers aren’t liked by the highest authorities because the highest authorities don’t like thorny irritants. They might spin a good yarn about the need for employees to speak out about institutional injustices and policy outrages, but ultimately they don’t want too much transparency because it exacerbates the burden of accountability. So nobody really cares about whistleblowers, and certainly not Christian ones.
Except, of course, for Christian Concern, without whom Pastor Song might well have been plunged into the loneliest kind of lonely with nobody else singing along.
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that HMP Brixton has Muslim gangs who threaten other prisoners, take over the prison’s Christian chapel, and laud the killers of Lee Rigby?
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that a Christian chaplain feared for his safety after being assaulted and racially abused by Muslim inmates?
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that Muslim gangs are intimidating vulnerable inmates to convert to Islam, and apparently doing so with impunity?
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that Imam Mohammed Yusuf Ahmed was the former General Secretary of the Islamic Party of Britain, which had advocated for Britain to be transformed into an Islamic State?
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that Imam Mohammed Yusuf Ahmed had vowed to dismantle what he saw as Christian “domination” in HMP Brixton?
In August 2017, after Pastor Song had an exchange with an inmate about Islam and Christianity, he received an email from Imam Mohammed, which said: “You do not have permission to enter the wings, nor do you have the permission to speak to any prisoners here at HMP Brixton. If you do turn up here without my prior permission, your keys will be confiscated, and you will be walked to the gate.”
Isn’t it a matter of public interest that such harassment and bullying by a Muslim imam in one of Her Majesty’s prisons should be happening at all?
Paul Song met the Governor of HMP Brixton, David Bamford, on 16th August 2018. He was also told that Imam Mohammed had been suspended, pending an investigation into an unrelated matter.
What matter was that, one wonders?
The Governor told Pastor Song that there would be an investigation of what he had said in the Mail interview, including his “compromising of the safety of staff and prisoners by disclosing information to the press without permission” as well as “any breach of confidentiality” and “possible anti-Muslim comments”.
On 3rd May 2019, following that investigation, London’s Prison Group Director banned Pastor Song not only from HMP Brixton, but from all prisons for 10 years for “failure to adhere to the expected requirements of a chaplaincy volunteer”.
Pastor Paul Song is a former detective: he understands expected standards, and he knows about proper procedures.
His case will be heard at London County Court on 10th March 2021.
It would be good, wouldn’t it, if just occasionally a sitting Church of England bishop might speak out in defence of Christians like Paul Song. There aren’t many who have voluntarily dedicated 20 years of their life to telling of the miracles of rebirth, redemption and restoration to the depressed, lonely, self-harming, assaulted and bereaved. It would also be good if prisoners at HMP Brixton had internet access, so they might learn about what actually happened to their Christian Chaplain, and know that people care about the spiritual oppression some of them are experiencing at the hands of Muslim gangs.
Why is all the concern about such injustices left to Christian Concern?