Radical Islamist cleric Anjem Choudary

The conviction of the cleric Anjem Choudary for inviting support for the Islamic State (Isil) brings into sharp focus a longstanding concern about prisons and radicalisation. The spectre is that jailed Islamist extremists – or indeed any other kind of political extremist – find that there is no better recruiting ground for their cause than prisons themselves.

We know, for example, that a number of extremists behind recent terror attacks in France associated with Isil had spent time in the French prison system and had been radicalised there. Now a man described as the “most dangerous man in Britain”, who counter-terrorism chiefs have spent the best part of two decades pursuing on charges of radicalisation, will most likely be sent to prison for many years. What might he achieve in the potentially fertile recruiting ground of British prisons?

As it happens, and possibly with the looming conviction of Choudary in mind, the former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove commissioned a review into Islamist extremists in prison. That review is yet to be published, and with the appointment of Elizabeth Truss to the Ministry of Justice its future is currently rather uncertain. We do know, however, that the review found that such extremism is a growing problem within prisons (although we do not know what data the review relied upon to reach this conclusion). The review also found the National Offender Management Service, which oversees the prison system, lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the problem. Some 69 recommendations were made for change.

While radicalisation is a problem faced by prisons, there are some important caveats to be made. When the Howard League has looked at this issue, we have found that the staff workforce in prisons is not terribly diverse and certainly doesn’t reflect the diversity of prisoners. This is particularly true in high-secure prisons, which tend to be located in isolated rural areas. That can mean misunderstandings arise. Just because a group of Muslim prisoners are praying together does not automatically mean they are terrorists. They just have their religion and background in common. Religion can also play a positive role in people turning away from crime.

Choudary (centre) on a march in east London in 2008 CREDIT: ANTHONY UPTON
What about a prisoner convicted of proselytising for extremism however, such as Anjem Choudary? How can such an individual be safely held in prison? One tension the unpublished review apparently explored was between dispersing radicalised prisoners around institutions and concentrating them in specialised facilities. The current approach looks to move such prisoners around institutions in the high-secure estate, keeping them apart from each other and stopping them from staying in a prison for too lengthy a period of time (on the fear that this provides an opportunity to start radicalising other prisoners). Over the years some have advocated putting all Islamist extremist prisoners in a single dedicated institution. This has always been rightly resisted by the prison authorities because of the experience of Northern Ireland.

The Maze prison during the Troubles is in many ways a model of what not to do. In truth, all prisons are run on a degree of consent from the prisoners. Concentrating paramilitary prisoners in The Maze led it to become known as a “university of terror”. There were hunger strikes, dirty protests and numerous organised escapes. Prison officers were targeted by terrorists on the outside. Arguably this led to The Maze being run by the paramilitary groups in the H-blocks.

The unpublished Ministry of Justice review appears to have opted for a "middle way" between the current approach of dispersal and the failed approach of concentration. For a few prisoners considered a particular threat of radicalising others – and one imagines Anjem Choudary would fall into this category – the review proposed creating small units within prisons that would separate these prisoners from those they might radicalise. Within those units, specialised interventions could take place. A similar approach is taken in the Netherlands. Although the devil would be in the detail, this might prove better than the current situation, as despite the strategy for dispersal, there are a number of prisoners convicted of terror offences who are in practical terms being separated through the use of lengthy solitary confinement. There is plentiful evidence of the damaging impact of physically isolating people on their mental health. A humane prison system should not rely on solitary confinement and writing people off just to maintain some semblance of order.

And a semblance of order is all most prisons currently provide. Overcrowded and facing dramatically reduced resources, what is clear is that prisons themselves are now extreme environments. There were more alleged homicides behind bars in 2015 than in any other year on record. Rates of suicide are now at a ten-year high. Reported incidents of self-harm in prisons have risen by 27 per cent in a year. The number of assaults on prison staff has increased by 40 per cent. Meanwhile access to work, education and healthcare – or interventions to deradicalise prisoners, indeed – has been dramatically curtailed because there simply aren’t the staff to unlock prisoners out of their cells.

That is the bigger picture which needs to be addressed. Otherwise it will be the prisons themselves and not the likes of Anjem Choudhary that could help turn damaged people toward dangerous ideologies.

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