The Sydney Sun-Herald page one ‘exclusive’ yesterday on an alleged Islamic cell in New South Wales’ Goulburn Jail has all the hallmarks of a classic Sunday newspaper beat-up.

And if the report is accurate, then the NSW Government and its notoriously harsh corrections regime are heading into dangerous territory in terms of discriminating against prisoners who embrace Islam as opposed to those who find religion through Christianity, Buddhism or any other faith.

According to the report, one in three inmates in the super-max facility at Goulburn, where dangerous prisoners are held, is now a Muslim fundamentalist or a convert to Islam. According to the Sun-Herald, Attorney-General John Hatzistergos wants prison officials to “control every movement and every utterance because of the threat they pose. We don’t want to see any risk to people either inside or outside the system. We simply can’t take our eye off them”.

And what is it that makes these prisoners so frightening? Has a stash of armaments been discovered in the cells, or plans of prominent Sydney buildings, or, perhaps, instructions on how to make bombs?

None of the above, if the Sun-Herald is to be believed. Pictures of Osama Bin Laden have been confiscated from the cell of the group’s alleged ringleader, Bassam Hamzy, who was jailed for 21 years for the murder of an 18-year-old man in Oxford Street in 1998. And apparently prisoners have been filmed kissing Hamzy’s hand.

The new A-G rather cryptically says that while he has no objection to people taking up religion in prison, “Where we do draw the line is where religion is really a camouflage for other activities.” But what are these “other activities”?

The head of the NSW Corrections, Ron Woodham is at least a little less disingenuous than Hartzistergos. “We’re concerned about real heavy criminals who have had no interest in religion at all during their lives but, on coming to jail, then convert to Islam.”

But should we be surprised that prisoners are converting to Islam? Not if you ask English writer and former prison doctor Theodore Dalyrmple. Writing in The Times on 30 July 30, he observed that one reason Islam is so popular in UK prisons is because “many prisoners prefer life in prison to life outside, which is one motive for recidivism. Prison imposes boundaries on them that they are unable to impose on themselves, and a life without boundaries is a life of torment, it is without form, a void. Islam, with its daily rituals and its list of prohibitions, is ideally suited to those who are seeking to contain their own lives”.

No doubt in the case of some of those converting to Islam in the hell-hole that is the Goulburn, this would be the case. That is not to say that any suspicious behaviour by prisoners should not be investigated, but on the evidence presented by the Sun-Herald, it seems there might be a fair bit of jumping at shadows on the part of the NSW Government, and just a touch of paranoia.

Disclaimer: the author acts, on a pro bono basis, as a legal adviser to a Tasmanian prison reform group.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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