17 September 2018

The lessons of Pastor Song and HMP Brixton


Paul Song, a former detective from South Korea turned volunteer Christian pastor at HMP Brixton has endured a very modern form of institutional martyrdom that says something about the state of extremism in Britain’s prisons and the priorities of those who are supposed to combat it.

His story has been followed by the Mail on Sunday which first highlighted his treatment in February this year. Pastor Song had been working at HMP Brixton for 19 years when in September 2017 he was, “permanently and with immediate effect” excluded from the prison. This followed allegations that he had called a prisoner a terrorist and following a “confrontation” had “threatened” the managing chaplain at the time, the Muslim Imam.

Yesterday the Mail revealed that Pastor Song has been quietly reinstated after a review of his case by a senior governor outside the establishment revealed the initial investigation was “limited” and “did not follow due process”. Those of you familiar with the heroically mangled management lexicon of the Prison Service will understand this as “unmitigated car crash”. Incidentally, that ‘process’ initially included the banning of Pastor Song from all prisons on partially anonymous evidence pending any investigation on the grounds that he was a “security risk”.

The review was grudgingly granted following a threat by Pastor Song’s legal representatives to take HM Prison Service to Judicial Review over its obviously cack-handed management of the affair.

What can we learn about this sorry episode to help us understand the contest of faith and ideology happening inside the prison system?

Prison is fertile territory for the acquisition of faith. Those entering prison for the first time often experience a crisis of meaning in their lives. A search for answers and hope acquires an urgency not much seen in the half-empty pews of an English church. Crisis ministry has much to offer – and much to gain – when your life is in despair. The redemptive power of faith, the camaraderie, the discipline, security and forgiveness are in their ways as potent as the Chalice.

By all accounts, Pastor Song was a muscular proponent of the Christian brand of this fellowship at HMP Brixton. He brought a kind of fellowship and witness into its dark places over the years which seems to have been greatly appreciated by the many prisoners he came in contact with and who submitted statements in his defence. He ran a very successful ‘Alpha’ course at the establishment that gets people together to discuss the meaning of life and the Christian explanation for it. It appears that after the departure of the managing Chaplain in Brixton in 2017 – another Anglican, as most are – he had moved his evangelism up a gear. This, he alleges, brought him into conflict with the new Managing Chaplain, a Muslim Imam.

I don’t know either individual but the publicly available information suggests that there was something of a power struggle going on inside the prison Chaplaincy to promote one religion at the expense of another. Pastor Song and his supporters contend that the Christian faith was being deliberately undermined inside the prison and Islam was being promoted at its expense. This expansionist tussle took place in an environment which HM Prisons Chief Inspector has described thus:

“Brixton was not a safe prison. Almost a third of prisoners told us they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection and nearly two-thirds had felt unsafe at some point during their stay. Levels of violence had increased and were high, and the prison’s response had been wholly inadequate”.

It isn’t surprising in this sort of custodial setting to see people coalesce around gangs or other groups to preserve their own identity and safety in the absence of lawful order and control. This seems to have been the case at Brixton where the statistics tell us that there were disproportionately high numbers of Muslim prisoners – 30% in the prison population compared with similar category prisons.

Some of these will have been converts attracted by the message of Islam and, it’s fair to say, the dominance of this grouping as a source of power and safety. This isn’t controversial. In the same situation, dear reader, you might do the same.

So apart from absurdly heavy-handed treatment of Pastor Song, what were the prison authorities doing to tackle this unwholesome situation? How would parity of esteem be restored given the prisons religious wrangling?  Brixton’s own Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) report for 2017 suggests little urgency to act:

“The vacancy for an Anglican chaplain remained open. The last full-time ordained Anglican left the prison in spring 2015. IMB has raised its concerns with three successive governors, and this year with the regional lead in HMPPS and the Anglican bishop for prisons, who has not replied”.

Unfortunately this bureaucratic insouciance comes as no surprise to those of us who keep a close eye on religious extremism in prisons.  The Chaplain-General of Prisons is the head of the Church of England’s chaplaincy to prisons. He is accountable for the running of all chaplaincies and the activities of all faith providers. God’s line manager on the landings.

In my 2016 report on the threat of Islamist extremism in prisons my team were alarmed at the almost complete lack of central control over the recruitment, selection, deployment and supervision of Muslim Imams across the prison system. This process seemed to have been entirely outsourced to the Senior Muslim Advisor to the prison service, an individual who we found had in the past shared platforms with extremist groups. I can’t find any record of the Christian incumbent in this post at the time, The Venerable Mike Kavanagh, making any intervention on the Brixton case or on any other pressing issues of faith in prisons, for that matter.

It’s interesting to note that after my review team drew the Prison Service’s attention to the presence of freely available extremist literature in prison Chaplaincies said to inspire Jihadists, it took them nearly seven months to order their removal. Contrast this with the indecent haste of Pastor Song’s removal on the basis of unverified and anonymous allegations. And Jesus wept.

There has been much lurid reporting accompanying the Mail’s piece about forced conversions to Islam at Brixton and extremist infiltration, which the Prison Service categorically denies. Brixton is a poorly maintained Victorian prison with a multi-ethnic population and very challenging problems recruiting and retaining the right staff, Chaplains included.

Chaplains of all religious denominations have unique and powerful access to some of the most vulnerable, suggestible – and often violent – people in our society. We ought to expect these places of sanctuary and transformation to be well run, properly supervised and also part of the fight against extremism and intolerance. Prisons are ideal incubators of hateful ideologies as we know to our cost. One can only pray that with the recent appointment a new Chaplain General, all faiths within the prison system will be catered for without fear or favour. In prisons, we need all the hope we can get.

Ian Acheson is a prison safety expert. He led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, in 2016.