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How Islam has Reconfigured Status and Leadership in Prison

Date & Time:
March 11, 2016 | 3:00 pm - 5:00 pm
SS 541
Dr. Ryan J. Williams, University of Calgary
Islam and Islamic identity have come to matter in English maximum security prisons in distinctive and significant ways. As over a quarter of prisoners in English high security prisons self-identify with Islam, compared to less than 3 per cent nationally, and the numbers of Muslim prisoners convicted of terrorism offences is on the rise, Islam has been seen to serve as a 'power base' that serves exploitative means-a dangerous mix of gang activity and extremism. Based on a comparative sociological study of two English maximum security prisons, this talk will explore the impact that Islam is having on prisoner experience, status, and prisoner organization, continuing a line of investigation that has been a central concern for prison sociologists but has yet to account, with any degree of methodological and conceptual sophistication, for religious forms of identity in a post-secular climate. Through attention to features of Islamic piety and self-identity and through an analysis of the specific institutional responses to recent instances of violence within the prison, this talk explores how Islam has come to feature in the prisoner hierarchy in ways that are consonant with previous findings in prison sociology yet take on new contours. The focus of the talk lies in an analysis of 'power as arbitration', an examination that challenges theorists' in the study of religion and violence tendency to see religion as either a cause of violence or its cure. The talk also challenges the dominant analytical categories of the 'Muslim gang' and 'radicalization' that are often imposed upon, and alien to, the subjective experience of Muslims in prison and the complexities inherent to prisoner social life.