SEQUEDIN, France — Samia El Alaoui Talibi walks her beat in a cream-colored head scarf and an ink-black robe with sunset-orange piping, an outfit she picked up at a yard sale.
After passing a bulletproof window, El Alaoui Talibi trudges through half a dozen heavy, locked doors to reach the Muslim faithful to whom she ministers in the women’s cellblock of the Lille-Sequedin Detention Center in far northern France.
It took her years to earn this access, said El Alaoui Talibi, one of only four Muslim holy women allowed to work in French prisons. “Everyone has the same prejudices and negative image of Muslims and Islam,” said Moroccan-born El Alaoui Talibi, 47, the mother of seven children. “When some guards see you, they see an Arab; they see you the same as if you were a prisoner.”
This prison is majority Muslim — as is virtually every house of incarceration in France. About 60 to 70 percent of all inmates in the country’s prison system are Muslim, according to Muslim leaders, sociologists and researchers, though Muslims make up only about 12 percent of the country’s population.
On a continent where immigrants and the children of immigrants are disproportionately represented in almost every prison system, the French figures are the most marked, according to researchers, criminologists and Muslim leaders.
“The high percentage of Muslims in prisons is a direct consequence of the failure of the integration of minorities in France,” said Moussa Khedimellah, a sociologist who has spent several years conducting research on Muslims in the French penal system.
In Britain, 11 percent of prisoners are Muslim in contrast to about 3 percent of all inhabitants, according to the Justice Ministry. Research by the Open Society Institute, an advocacy organization, shows that in the Netherlands 20 percent of adult prisoners and 26 percent of all juvenile offenders are Muslim; the country is about 5.5 percent Muslim. In Belgium, Muslims from Morocco and Turkey make up at least 16 percent of the prison population, compared with 2 percent of the general populace, the research found.
Sociologists and Muslim leaders say the French prison system reflects the deep social and ethnic divides roiling France and its European neighbors as immigrants and a new generation of their children alter the demographic and cultural landscape of the continent.
French prison officials blame the high numbers on the poverty of people who have moved here from North African and other Islamic countries in recent decades. “Many immigrants arrive in France in difficult financial situations, which make delinquency more frequent,” said Jeanne Sautie`re, director of integration and religious groups for the French prison system. “The most important thing is to say there is no correlation between Islam and delinquency.”
But Muslim leaders, sociologists and human rights activists argue that more than in most other European countries, government social policies in France have served to isolate Muslims in impoverished suburbs that have high unemployment, inferior schools and substandard housing. This has helped create a generation of French-born children with little hope of social advancement and even less respect for French authority.
“The question of discrimination and justice is one of the key political questions of our society, and still, it is not given much importance,” said Sebastian Roche, who has studied judicial discrimination as research director for the French National Center for Scientific Research. “We can’t blame a state if its companies discriminate; however, we can blame the state if its justice system and its police discriminate.”
As a matter of policy, the French government does not collect data on race, religion or ethnicity on its citizens in any capacity, making it difficult to obtain precise figures on the makeup of prison populations. But demographers, sociologists and Muslim leaders have compiled generally accepted estimates showing Muslim inmate populations nationwide averaging between 60 and 70 percent.
The figures fluctuate from region to region: They are higher in areas with large concentrations of Muslims, including suburban Paris, Marseille in the south and Lille in the north.
Inside the prisons, El Alaoui Talibi and her husband, Hassan — a rare husband-wife Islamic clerical team — are struggling to win for Muslim prisoners the same religious rights accorded to their minority-Christian counterparts. Hassan is an imam. Samia has received religious training and can counsel the faithful, but under Islamic practices she cannot become an imam. The prison system has only 100 Muslim clerics for the country’s 200 prisons, compared with about 480 Catholic, 250 Protestant and 50 Jewish chaplains, even though Muslim inmates vastly outnumber prisoners of all other religions. “It is true that we haven’t attained full equality among religions in prisons yet,” said Sautie`re, the national prison official. “It is a matter of time.”
In recent years, the French government’s primary concern with its Muslim inmate population has been political. French national security officials warned prison authorities in 2005 that they should work to prevent radical Muslims from inciting fellow prisoners. A year later, the French Senate approved a bill giving the country’s national intelligence agency broad authority to monitor Muslim inmates as part of counterterrorism efforts.
Prison authorities began allowing carefully vetted moderate imams into prisons in hopes of “balancing the radical elements,” said Aure’lie Leclerq, 33, director of the Lille-Sequedin Detention Center.
Hassan El Alaoui Talibi, 52, who moved to France from Morocco as a student, is the national head of France’s prison imams and typical of the kind of moderate Muslim figure the French government seeks for its prison system.
El Alaoui Talibi delivers his Friday sermons with carefully chosen words, he says. He avoids politics and other subjects that might seem remotely inflammatory. He sticks to counseling convicted drug dealers, murderers and illegal immigrants in matters of faith and respect.
But not all the Muslims at Lille-Sequedin share those moderate views. Last year a disgruntled inmate blared a taped religious sermon into the prison courtyard. Prison officials deemed its message inflammatory and sent the prisoner to solitary confinement.
El Alaoui Talibi described years of struggle to win even modest concessions from prison directors. He recalled the first prison visit he made, a decade ago: He was forced to wait an hour and a half to meet with inmates. “If I hadn’t been patient, I would have left,” said the soft-spoken former high school teacher who became a prison imam after seeing so many of his students get in trouble with the law for petty offenses and end up hard-core criminals after prison stints.
Today, working in France’s newest prison — the sprawling, three-year-old Lille-Sequedin center — the El Alaoui Talibis say they are more accepted than some Muslim colleagues at other prisons. Prison officials rejected requests by The Washington Post to visit some of the system’s older, more troubled prisons.
On a recent Friday, Hassan El Alaoui Talibi, a man with soulful eyes and a beard with the first hints of gray, made his way with a reporter through the men’s wings, collecting prisoners’ notes from mailboxes shared with Catholic and Protestant chaplains. At one point, several new inmates returning from sports practice surrounded him, requesting personal visits. He scribbled their names and cell numbers on a scrap of paper.
Many of the Muslim inmates in this prison just west of Lille are the children and grandchildren of immigrants who were brought to the northern region decades ago to work in its coal mines.
El Alaoui Talibi moved on to a small room overlooking a tiny garden courtyard and tugged at prayer mats stacked in a closet beside a rough-hewn wooden cross. Every other Friday, he transforms the room into a mosque for some of the male Muslim faithful of the prison. One of his most frequent sermon topics is food.
“He tells us not to throw away prison food just because it isn’t halal,” or compliant with Islamic dietary law, said a 33-year-old former civil servant, a man of Algerian descent who attends the twice-monthly prayer meetings. French prison rules prohibit journalists from identifying inmates by name or disclosing their crimes.
The refusal of prison officials to provide halal food, particularly meat products, is one of the biggest complaints of Muslim inmates across France and has occasionally led to cellblock protests.
For many years, prisons have allowed Muslim prisoners to forgo pork products — and statistics tracking prisoners who refuse pork is an accurate barometer of the Muslim population in a prison, according to researchers. But cutting out pork is a long way from the full halal regimen. Only recently, did the prisons stop using pork grease to cook vegetables and other dishes.
“If you want to comply with your religion, you don’t have a choice — you have to become vegetarian,” said the convicted civil servant, a compact man who works in the prison library. “We have access to a prison store with two halal products: halal sausage and a can of ravioli.”
Prison officials say it is too expensive to provide halal meals. “We’d like to buy fresh meat, but we can’t,” said Leclerq, whose prison office is decorated with plush bears.
Muslim inmates said they sense other religious snubs. Christians are allowed packages containing gifts and special treats from their families at Christmas, but Muslims do not receive the same privilege for the Ramadan holy days. “We’re careful not to call them Christmas packages because Muslims would ask for Ramadan packages,” Leclerq said. “We call them end-of-the-year packages. We can’t use a religious term or some people get tense.”
Hassan El Alaoui Talibi said the French prison system has made progress since he began his ministry a decade ago. Last year the government set guidelines for all prisons to follow on religious practices, rather than allowing directors to arbitrarily set their own rules.
Prison imams met with Justice Minister Rachida Dati last month with a list of continuing requests, including more imams and training for prison guards to help them better understand religious differences.
A 31-year-old woman of Algerian descent with a youthful face and black, wavy hair tied carelessly in a ponytail welcomed Samia El Alaoui Talibi on a recent morning with double kisses on the cheeks.
“Arriving here was a nightmare,” said the woman, one of about 150 female inmates. “I was crying, I couldn’t believe I was here.
“Then I saw this woman wearing a head scarf,” she said, smiling toward Samia. “I could tell she was here to help me. I call her my angel.”
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.
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