Britain to isolate extremist Islamist prisoners
London - Prisoners who hold dangerous Islamic extremist beliefs will be isolated in special prison units away from the general prison population to combat radicalisation behind bars, the British Justice Ministry announced.
“Prisons should be safe places where criminals are reformed and turned into law-abiding citizens. We cannot allow them to become hives of Islamist extremism where minds are polluted and dangerous ideas allowed to spread,” Justice Secretary Liz Truss wrote in the Sun newspaper.
“Islamic extremism is a danger to society and a threat to public safety. It must be defeated wherever it is found… Preventing the most dangerous extremists from radicalising other prisoners is essential to the safe running of our prisons and fundamental to pubic protection.”
The move comes following a government-ordered review, by former prison governor Ian Acheson, that highlighted the many problems surrounding radicalisation in British jails. The report found evidence of “aggressive encouragement” of conversion to Islam, unsupervised worship and intimidation of moderate prison imams by extremist prisoners.
The review, which was heavily redacted, warned that “charismatic” prisoners acted as “self-styled emirs” and exerted a “controlling and radicalising influence” on the Muslim prison population.
There are approximately 130 Muslims in prison on terrorist-related charges but at least 12,500 of Britain’s more than 90,000 prisoners identify as Muslim. Muslims make up a far greater proportion of the prison population than they do the general public and include many recent converts.
“There are no easy answers to the problems of Islamist extremism or indeed any of the other ills which plague our prisons and stop them from being hopeful, purposeful places. But I am optimistic about the way Liz Truss has begun to deal with the issues and correct the drift,” Acheson said in an e-mail to the BBC.
The new specialist units inside high-security prisons, which have been dubbed “jihadi wings” by British tabloid media, will be manned by specialist staff with training in how to deal with extremists. The Acheson report had criticised what it called “institutional timidity” in challenging extremist views, with prison staff fearful of being considered racist.
British prison authorities have a chequered history in addressing extremism, including a recent government report that revealed that at least five books viewed as extremist and ordered removed from prison libraries by the Ministry of Justice remained available to prisoners more than eight months later.
The banned books were The Way of Jihad by Hassan al-Banna, Milestones by Sayyid Qutb, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Towards Understanding Islam by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi and Fundamentals of Tawheed by Bilal Philips.
The new policy specifically calls for “tackling the availability and source of extremist literature” and calls for further scrutiny of prison imams.
The idea of isolating dangerous prisoners together is not without controversy, however, with analysts warning that locking up all the extremist prisoners together fails one of the main objective of prisons, namely to rehabilitate prisoners.
“The goal must be to get people back into the main prison community, so that changes in their behaviour can be observed. Anything else is just storing up an even more difficult problem for when they are eventually released,” warned Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust.
Other analysts warn of the establishment of a “British Guantanamo” and likened the move to a new era of Northern Ireland’s Maze prison in the 1980s in which Irish Republican and Loyalist prisoners ran their own respective prison blocks, made criminal contacts and set up effective operational chains of command.
“The trade-off is this: You want to separate terrorist prisoners in order to prevent them from radicalising others yet you don’t want to… provide an opportunity for terrorist prisoners to create (or recreate) operations command structures inside prisons that might not have existed outside,” King’s College Professor Peter Neumann, a counterterrorism expert, told the Guardian.
“With large numbers of ‘lone operators’ who may not be particularly ideological and who have failed to join the command and control structure of groups like [the Islamic State] ISIS, the risk of them connecting with ideological and operations leaders while imprisoned is real. In other words, a policy of concentration may inadvertently help to create the kind of hierarchical organisation that the terrorists found it impossible to create outside,” he warned.
Truss told the BBC there was a “risk” in isolating extremists together but stressed that prison authorities would work to “keep apart those who might collaborate together to create more problems”.
Truss’s comments came after influential British extremist preacher Anjem Choudary was convicted of inviting support for ISIS. Many wondered whether the new measures would effectively silence him or rather place him in the midst of like-minded prisoners with whom he could wield even more effective influence.
The Justice secretary added that a “ghost train” system would be established in which dangerous prisoners would be transferred regularly between different isolation wings to prevent Islamist extremists from organising.
“We have looked at what happened in Northern Ireland… We don’t want to allow that to fester. So people will be moved around and that will be an operational decision by the people who are the experts in dealing with counter-extremism,” said Truss.