by Shona Robinson-Edwards, PhD Researcher and Assistant Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University

News this week reported that extremist and Lee Rigby killer, Michael Adebolajo, has converted inmates to Islam.

Lee Rigby, 25, was killed in a vicious, merciless attack, one which stirred emotions, reactions and discussions – not only in the UK but across the globe. We live in the media (Deuze, 2012), and newer forms of media enabled(s) the documentation of a violent, horrific, criminal, unpredictable act. Both Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale were convicted of murder, this case further opened up the platform for discussions, relating to the threat of Islamic extremism upon British soil. Adebolajo, a complex character, is in the process of taking legal action against the Ministry of Justice. A High Court judge has been told that Adebolajo has played an ‘influential’ role in converting other inmates to Islam –  further described as an appealing character, ‘looked up to’ by prisoners.

The role of religion in the lives of prisoners is not a new concept, O.J. Simpson stated his commitment to Christianity; and the convicted murderer of Milly Dowler, Levi Bellefield, has allegedly converted to Islam changing his name to Yusuf Rahim, (Grierson, 2016). There are some complexities relating to the meaning of conversion, the term convert or revert is frequently used when referring to an individual’s journey to religion. Having said this, the term conversion refers to a number, of activities, those involving religion and beyond.

The ‘surge’ in Muslim prisoners has been acknowledged (see Beckford 2012, & Whitehead, 2010). Morris (2014) writes about the increased numbers of Muslims in the prison population, which has nearly doubled to nearly 12,000 in a decade. It has to be acknowledged that at the end of March 2016 just under half of the prison population was of a Christian faith – 49.1% – the proportion of Muslim prisoners had increased from 8% in 2002 to 15% in 2016 (Allen & Dempsey, 2016). The prison population by religious group shows that those who self-identify as Muslim in prison, make up 14.6% of the prison population.

Prisoners who embrace religion are often scrutinised in relation to their ‘real intention’, some are thought to be putting on an act to gain public sympathy; converting to religion to gain protection whilst in prison, or seeking to portray positive improvement to impress prison officials and parole boards. Even when the role of religion has evidently had a positive impact, offenders still carry negative stigmas.  Finding God behind bars seems ‘somehow too convenient to be believable’ (2006, p.162).

Adebolajo’s self-professed influence within prison, is particularly concerning to many. Due to his somewhat radical views, and influence to those behind the prison walls and beyond. The reasoning behind the conversion of prisoners should be explored to some extent. A new identity attributed to following a particular belief system can be appealing to those who have been negatively labelled by wider society. This positive attribution is in contrast to what some individuals are usually accustomed to. In a sense when individuals convert they have the opportunity to ‘reinterpret one’s autobiography’ (Maruna 2006, p.166). The individual’s position in life, future and purpose can be viewed radically differently with a new outlook.

Identity is a key concept when discussing the role of religion and religiosity, even so, how and where someone becomes religious seems to also hold much relevance. Prison conversions and understanding why offenders convert to religion whilst incarcerated is of particular interest to academics. Which begs the question, is converting to religion outside the prison walls somewhat different to ‘Finding God’ behind the prison walls? In recent times the focus on religion and offenders and/or ex-offenders has become more openly discussed, however in the case of Michael Adebolajo his influential role and intentions behind converting others to Islam seems to be an area of unease for many.



Allen, G and Dempsey, N. (2016). Prison Population Statistics. Briefing Paper Number SN/SG/04334, 4 July 2016. Available at  [Accessed 27th February 2017]

Beckford, M. (2012). Prisoners under Pressure to Convert to Muslim ‘gang’. Available at [Accessed 6th March 2017].

Deuze, M. (2012) Media life, Cambridge: Polity.

Flynn, N.  (1998). Introduction to Prisons and Imprisonment. Winchester: Waterside Press.

Grierson, J. (2016). Police Reopen Murder Files after Levi Bellfield Admits Killing Milly Dowler. Available at [Accessed 11th January 2017].

James, W. (1985). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin. (Originalwork published 1902)

Mahoney, A., & Pargament, K. I. (2004). Sacred Changes: Spiritual Conversion and Transformation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60, 481–492.

Maruna, S., Wilson, L., and Curran, K. (2006) Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative. Research in Human Development, 3(2&3), 161–184.

Morris, N. (2014). Number of Muslims in Prison Doubles in Decade to 12,000. Available at [Accessed 11th January 2017].

Whitehead, T. (2010). Prisoners Converting to Islam for ‘perks’. Available at [Accessed 24th April 2017]

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