`End jail curb on Rastas'

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The Independent Online
THE POET Benjamin Zephaniah is leading calls on Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to lift the ban on the practice of the Rastafarian religion in prisons in England and Wales.

Rastafarianism was prohibited in jails more than 20 years ago amid fears that it was a vehicle for growing black militancy and would promote disorder. Senior officials said that acknowledging it would encourage the use of marijuana.

But race watchdogs and religious groups believe that the ban is unacceptable in the wake of the Government's acceptance of the Lawrence report and the Prison Service's own commitment to race equality.

Mr Zephaniah, a practising Rastafarian who was tipped as a possible poet laureate, said: "Their refusal to recognise your religion just makes you more hostile and convinced that the system is out to punish you."

Apart from Rastafarians, the only religious groups banned by the Prison Service are Scientologists and the Nation of Islam.

As a teenage burglar, Mr Zephaniah experienced prison life at first hand. At Winson Green prison, Birmingham, he said he was a Rasta but was told "we don't have that".

He regularly gives poetry readings at prisons in Britain and abroad. "Prison made me come out bitter," he said. "It did nothing for me."

He is particularly annoyed by the insinuation that marijuana smoking is an intrinsic part of Rastafarian culture. "There are Rastas who see it as the holy herb but there are more that don't smoke than do," he said.

The new Prison Service director-general, Martin Narey, has made clear his intention of ending discrimination in prisons and Mr Zephaniah hopes that the ban may now be lifted.

Rastafarianism, founded in Jamaica in the 1930s, is based on the tenet that all descendants of slaves in the diaspora are living in "Babylon" and must return, physically or spiritually, to Africa. They believe that the former Ethiopian leader, Emperor Haile Selassie I, (whose pre-coronation name was Ras Tafari) was, and continues to be, the embodiment on earth of God, or Jah.

Although they cannot practise, Rastas are now permitted to register their faith on the official Prison Service religious census. Some 110 prisoners have done so although many other Rastas are believed to have chosen not to take part, fearing they will be targeted for cell searches.

In America, Rastafarianism is recognised by the US Department of Justice, which runs federal prisons. Rastas are allowed to congregate in the prison chapel for spiritual "reasoning" sessions, have pictures of Selassie on their cell walls and eat "Ital" vegan food.

The Prison Service says it is willing to reconsider the case for lifting the ban but is awaiting correspondence from the Rastafarian Advisory Service, in west London.

William Noblett, chaplain of Full Sutton prison in York, points out in the General Synod's magazine Crucible that the Prison Service's race relations policy says "all prisoners should be allowed to practise their religion".