Ian Acheson

Inmates and Islamism

The government asked me to look into the growing threat behind bars. Is the system brave enough to deal with it?

Inmates and Islamism
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In response to the Westminster attack, a 100-strong new counter-extremism taskforce has been announced to deal with the terrorist threat in prisons. I’m taking some credit for this badly needed focus. In the autumn of 2015, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, asked me to lead an independent review of the threat posed by Islamist extremism in prisons, the probation service and the youth justice system. I used to be a prison governor in what was known until just a few days ago as the National Offender Management Service, so I agreed on the understanding that I reported only to him and that I had his full support to go where the evidence led me, without interference from bureaucrats. To his credit, he agreed immediately.

Gathering information was a complex task for a small team. We quizzed officials, made dozens of prison visits, analysed intelligence provided by the prison service and other agencies, and surveyed the 40,000 people who work inside the criminal justice sprawl. We were looking for the gap between capability and need; what we found was a chasm.

Douglas Murray and Tom Gash consider radicalisation behind bars on the Spectator Podcast:

Prison is an ideal environment for the death-cult ideology of Islamist extremism to flourish. If you confine violent, credulous and impulsive young men hunting for power and meaning with charismatic and psychologically manipulative extremists, you have the right ingredients. Add in the grievance narrative that is the IS trademark, a dash of conspiracy theory, and lace with the glamour of extreme violence and you have the perfect recipe for Islamism.

We saw it taking hold in several prisons. We had corroborating evidence from hundreds of staff who felt unsupported and lacked the skills to cope with this new challenge. Worse still, we were told on countless occasions that prison officers did not confront hateful ideas on the landings for fear of being accused of being racist by Muslim prisoners. Without any credible counter--narrative or effective staff training, the infection of Islamist extremism was — is —spreading through the system unchecked.

And perversely, it’s been accelerated by the success of our security services. They scoop up would-be terrorists further and further upstream of actual attacks and some of these Islamist offenders, imprisoned for relatively short periods of time on less serious offences, will find themselves in the medium-security estate, which simply does not have the skills, expertise or staff numbers to manage them.

At the prison service headquarters, we encountered a lethal combination of arrogance, defensiveness and ineptitude. There was no coherent strategy to deal with extremism and risk-assessment processes all seemed to focus on the ‘vulnerability’ of prisoners to radicalisation, and not on the actual harm Islamists could do. We often received lawyerly evasive verbiage in response to straight questions. The usual approach was insouciance and denial. ‘Institutional timidity’, I called it. Dame Louise Casey has highlighted this phenomenon across public services, a prioritising of political correctness and cultural relativism above the need to take decisive action to keep people safe.

Far too few of the senior people with responsibility for extremism policy during the time of our review had ever worked in a prison. This showed in the levels of naivety we encountered, at such variance with the harrowing fears of frontline staff. In my view a terrorist incident in a prison is closer now than at any time since the height of the IRA campaign, when Provos escaped from supposedly ‘escape-proof’ HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire.

We suggested nearly 70 recommendations to deal with the very serious deficiencies we identified. These included the separation of prisoners who proselytised Islamism from their audience, far better selection, training and management of prison imams, control of extremist literature, more skills and support for staff to promote British values, and better preparation for Islamist-inspired incidents in prison.

To her credit, Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, has implemented these necessary changes. But I remain intensely sceptical about the ability — or the will — of the machine she will rely on to enforce them. The new taskforce, for all its good intentions, will, in the end, have exactly the same problem.

The National Offender Management Service, or NOMS, is now finished. It was always an unhappy amalgamation of Her Majesty’s Prison Service (which I served with pride) and our national probation service. It was replaced on April Fool’s Day by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service which, as we say in Northern Ireland, is the same, only different, with a largely unchanged senior management team and a heritage of corporate ineptitude. This pig is going to need an awful lot of lipstick.

Our prison system has been in free fall for some time. It has neither the resources nor the leadership to cope with serious challenges quite apart from Islamism. Homicide, suicide, serious assaults against staff and prisoners, disorder, overcrowding, synthetic drug use are rising sharply, while levels of safety, order, control and human decency are down. The MoJ says that it is taking over prison policy to allow the new organisation to focus on ‘operational delivery’. This distinction might surprise the average punter, who could be forgiven for thinking that running prisons was sort of the point of a national service for offenders. This is the organisation which is now responsible for completing my urgent reforms to tackle Islamist extremism.

But isn’t this all about cuts? It’s undeniable that understaffing and overcrowding are the twin horns of our current penal dilemma. Prisons often have barely enough staff to feed and exercise prisoners, and there are also high absenteeism rates. The scared and harried staff who do turn up have been unable to spend vital time developing relationships with their charges and spotting problems. The consequence was inevitable: an explosion of violence, disorder and rising extremism.

But if it was inevitable, was it not also predictable? From 2012, NOMS was given the thankless task of making budget cuts. Between 2010 and 2015 nearly £900 million was cut from the prison budget for state-run jails — a saving of 24 per cent. As human beings in uniform are the most expensive (not to mention the most valuable) resource, they took the brunt. There was an exodus of experience.

The way these criminally stupid cuts were characterised is the stuff of pure satire. ‘Benchmarking’ was introduced and sold to unions as the only alternative to privatisation. What this muscular piece of managerial nonsense actually allowed was a race to the bottom in resourcing. Public sector prison budgets were driven down to private-sector levels. In HMP Oakwood, a private prison run by G4S, inspectors learned from prisoners that it was easier to come by drugs than a bar of soap. The bureaucratic hoops and processes created by this transition to ‘efficiency’ occupied dozens of bureaucrats, tied up hard-pressed frontline governors and has arguably destroyed whatever esprit de corps remained in the uniformed service.

Here’s the rub: politicians rely on their civil servants to provide advice on their proposals. I’m pretty sure Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary before Gove, never saw the inside of a cell before he was ordered to swing the axe by the Treasury. So surely he must have relied on the guidance of NOMS senior officials, at least some of whom are former prison officers and governors. What advice was given? When? What scenarios were modelled? What consequences were described and did they include the horrific state we’re now in? Did any of this even happen? And if not, why not? I’m sure these are questions the Justice Select Committee will be considering for future hearings. We should be told.

I’m instinctively ‘frontline’ in my inclination. The rebranded prisons and probation service will still contain many quite brilliant governors and staff who are doing their best against sometimes insurmountable odds. Not all prisons are foul places — smaller establishments with stable staffing and a less problematic clientele do well and help damaged people become better citizens on release.

But I’m afraid the wider picture is bleak unless there is a fundamental change of culture at the top. NOMS was an out-of-touch administration. Its successor must act like an operational uniformed service with a relentless focus on the front line and not the ministerial backside. This is what the new taskforce should focus on.

Ian Acheson is a former prison governor and senior Home Office official.