For the first time in British history Catholicism is the largest religious denomination of prisoners in England and Wales, a position previously held by the Anglican Church.
Roman Catholics are now the largest faith group among the incarcerated, following a steady rise in the prison population and a simultaneous decline in the number of Anglicans, according to official figures revealed by The Times.
The number of prisoners who identify as Anglican has fallen from 21,600 in 1993 to 14,691 at the end of June, while Catholic numbers have risen from 7,766 to 14,961 in the same period. Muslims follow the Anglican Church closely, with their numbers having risen from 2,106 to 13,100. However, those with 'no religion' are the largest group among those in prison, at 26,443.
The Church of England, as the established state church, has traditionally played a dominant role in the prison service, particularly in the provision of pastoral care by prison chaplains.
The Prison Act 1952 requires that every British jail has a governor, doctor and chaplain, and that said chaplain, and their assistants, must be clergymen in the Church of England. Alongside this, chaplains of other faith groups are allowed. The prison service's chaplain general has historically been an Anglican clergyman.
However, shifting demographics and affiliations mean that while Anglicans once made up half of prisoners in England in Wales nearly twenty-five years ago, they made up just 17 per cent this year.
Subsequently, some have previously called for the CofE to lose its dominance in the prison chaplaincy service, making more space for other faiths.
The Right Reverend James Langstaff, the Bishop of Rochester and Bishop to Prisons, said: 'There is clearly a changing pattern of faith which is seen in a higher proportion of Muslims and other faiths in the system.'
He said the English law regarding the CofE's role was an 'anomaly in a way', but added that: 'I think most of the faith traditions would wish to preserve the position of a chaplaincy of some kind and believe it is required to serve prisoners.'