Two much-cherished items were gifted to me by two Muslim inmates, hand painted writing ‘Allah’ in Arabic and a hand made bracelet that hang proudly on the wall in the Chaplaincy office of Long Bay Correctional Centre.

The beautiful green painting depicting the name of God in Arabic “Allah” is by an Afghan brother who did a horrific crime and is serving a long sentence. He has acute mental health issues and was badly tortured and beaten as a young man. He unfortunately eventually inflicted the violence done to him upon others. He finds great peace in painting. I was so honoured when he surprised me with this gift.

The other item is a hand made bracelet gifted to me by a Bengali brother who grew up in an extremely violent household due to a violent dad with an alcohol problem. He was kicked out to live on the streets of Western Sydney at the age of 12 and got involved in petty theft and crime.

He made it using beads from a broken masbaha (prayer beads), dental floss and other items. When he gave it to me he reminded me to always fear and love Allah at the same time. This is a guy who is strongly built, with tattoos and intimidating looks…..but is a soft gentle soul.

Both these men, who despite their circumstances take full responsibility for their crimes, are typical of the men I deal with in jail. They are lost souls who regret their past, but so crave a life of peace and love.

What I have come to learn from working in men’s jails since 2015 as a Prison Chaplain, is that with the exception of the 1-2% of psychopaths who appear to inherently have no regard for the wellbeing of others, the vast majority of the men I see in jail are the products of abusive and dysfunctional pasts and the bad company they ended up keeping.

The abuse may have been physical, emotional/psychological and with a minority sexual. They usually also have had no proper father or male role model to mentor and guide them, in fact in many instances he was their abuser. Any man can father a child, but it takes a real man to be a good father.

It does not mean that everyone that experiences abuse or the lack of a father/mentor will end up in jail, but from my experience, it appears to be a very common life experience of those that do.

A lot of people in society have a bit of a self-righteous attitude that all the people in jail are bad people and deserve to be there – as the saying goes “do the crime do the time”. Of course, there has to be consequences for making bad life decisions, especially when it results in actions that are harmful to others and society in general.

However, from my experience, anyone could end up in jail. I have met plenty of good families and parents of men in jail (some of them prominent and respected people in our community) to learn that sometimes the best most religious households and upbringing is not enough to prevent some men from going off the rails.

The reality is anyone can fall…..and everyone can be redeemed. If Allah will forgive all sins except taking partners with Him, who are we not to forgive.

As a community, and in this instance I call specifically out to the Muslim community, we all need to do more to provide better mentorship and support to those who have been in jail. These men are our brothers and sons, they are also in many instances husbands and fathers. They are part of our community. They are us. We owe it to them and ourselves to take ownership of the fact that 10% of the prison population in NSW is Muslim, yet Muslim males only make up about 1% of the male adult population in NSW.

Unfortunately, criminality has established itself as a bit of a subculture in certain sections of our community and become “normalised”. This is especially the case with crimes around drug dealing and the criminality that comes with it – gangs, guns, drug use….etc. We need to put a stop to this as a matter of urgency.

We can start off by putting an end to the misguided hero status amongst some of our youth, particularly in the Lebanese Muslim community, of glorifying someone because they went to the “habass” (jail).  You may see them as a bad boy….I see them in tears in segregation crying like a baby with regret.

If you are a parent, be careful who your son’s friends/associates are and reach out for help if you see signs of things not being right. Sudden wealth/money with no real job, constant late nights and negative change in attitude are usually signs of things not being right.

In the past young men used to deal drugs without consumption, now many dealers start off as social users who eventually become habitual users and are forced to deal to pay for their addiction. What is even more tragic is that the vast majority of the growing problem of Muslim drug addicts in our community are sourcing their drugs from Muslim drug dealers (I will write more about this in the future InshaAllah).

We can also drop the shame of having a family member, cousin, friend in jail. Take responsibility and don’t be ashamed to ask for help. The percentage of re-offending within a year of being released is 49%. And if you have been to jail 2-3 times this percentage increases dramatically. We need to do more to help break the cycle. A safe home environment with no bad influences, a full-time job and a good mentor are essential ingredients.

Last but not least, we should all stop being self-righteous and judgemental. Many of the men I deal with just want to feel loved and a sense of worth. I have seen murderers memorise the whole Quran in custody and
become those with the best of manners. I have seen the worst of men become the best of men. Jails, or as they are called today correctional centres, can be exactly that for the sincere. Everyone can make a mistake and everyone can change.