Britain to isolate extremist Islamist prisoners

Sunday 28/08/2016
UK Justice Secretary Liz Truss outside 10 Downing Street in central London, last July.

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.