University of Tübingen: Scientists demand expansion of Islamic prison chaplaincy

Muslim juvenile prisoners are disadvantaged when it comes to religious support compared to their Christian fellow prisoners. This is shown by a study by the Institute for Criminology at the University of Tübingen in cooperation with the Criminological Service Baden-Württemberg and the Criminological Research Institute Lower Saxony (KFN). The scientists are calling for an expansion of Islamic prison chaplaincy.

Prison chaplaincy plays an important role in rehabilitation and radicalization prevention. So far, however, there has only been fragmentary information about the religious needs and pastoral care of Muslim juvenile prisoners, although their share in German juvenile prisoners is around 40 percent. The recently completed study “Muslims in Juvenile Prisons – Chances and Risks for Successful Integration” now provides a detailed picture of the situation.

For the project funded by the Federal Ministry of Research, data was collected in a total of eight penal institutions in Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia. 766 male and 62 female prisoners between the ages of 15 and 25 were interviewed. Members of all denominations as well as non-denominational members were included. Interviews with pastors, prison managers and prison employees complement the survey. Because of the very low proportion of women among the prisoners, the focus of the study is on young men.

41 percent of the young people surveyed belong to either Muslim or Christian religious communities, and a further 16 percent do not consider themselves to be any religion. Faith plays an important role for the vast majority of juvenile prisoners: 84 percent of Muslims and 78 percent of Christians consider themselves religious. “We did not expect such an interest in religion. It turns out that many young people in prison rediscover religion because it can give them orientation and a sense of belonging, ”says project manager Tillmann Bartsch, adjunct professor of criminology at the University of Tuebingen and deputy head of the KFN.

“In addition, many young people express themselves more impartially to pastors because they feel less valued than when talking to social workers or psychologists,” adds Wolfgang Stelly, research associate at the University of Tübingen and at the Baden-Württemberg Criminological Service. There are differences in the topics of conversation: While Christians want to talk to the pastor about their family or their own life, questions about religious commandments, the interpretation of the Koran and the correct practice of faith are in the foreground.

“Important signal for religious equality”
Much more than the Christians, the Muslims want an improvement in the religious offerings in the prison. They do state that they can practice their religion in principle. But more than half feel disadvantaged because there are no prayer rooms of their own or religious customs such as breaking the fast in Ramadan collide with the regular procedures in the penal system. In addition, more than two thirds feel that they are not adequately supported in the practice of their faith in everyday prison life. A major reason for this is that, in contrast to their Christian colleagues, Muslim pastors have so far only been employed part-time on a fee basis. Since they have fewer hours, individual supervision is often not possible. That is why sometimes services such as Friday prayer cannot take place.

“An increase in the number of hours and clearer institutional structures for Muslim pastoral care are necessary in order to improve care. That would also be an important signal for religious equality in prisons, ”says Tillmann Bartsch, pointing out another problem: unlike Christian pastors, there is no legally recognized right to silence for their Muslim colleagues. The prerequisite for this would be that such a command is first of all anchored in the Muslim religious communities themselves. Only then could it be recognized by the German state.

The researchers consider the often discussed danger of Islamist radicalization in juvenile detention centers to be overestimated. “We only found a solidified extremist worldview combined with a willingness to use violence in one percent of the detainees, and there is a dense control network that prevents such ideas from spreading in the institutions,” says Jürgen Thomas from the Baden-Württemberg Criminological Service. Muslim pastoral care makes a significant contribution to prevention, for example when it criticizes the justification of violence in the name of faith. According to the criminologists, problems arise above all after their release from prison, when the young people are often left to their own devices. “What is missing is criminal assistance for Muslims, as it has been in Christian social work for a long time.”