Ian Acheson

The ticking terror time bomb in our prisons

The ticking terror time bomb in our prisons
Flowers are left for Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, who were killed in a terror attack, last November (Getty images)
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This week saw the publication of an independent review into multi-agency arrangements that manage terrorist offenders released into the community. The report was ordered by the Government following the horrific murders committed by released Islamist extremist, Usman Khan in November of last year who was at the time subject to these arrangements and had convinced professionals he had given up terror. It provided a golden opportunity for radical proposals to overhaul a plainly broken risk management system. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a swing and a miss.

Risk assessment and threat management of ideologically motivated offenders is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks for criminal justice professionals. At the outset of his review, Jonathan Hall QC, our independent reviewer of terrorism legislation acknowledges this fact and it should not be underplayed. The price for total protection from the risk posed by terrorists in custody and on release would be the destruction of the liberal democracy they are trying to bring down. 

However, Hall then goes on to list some devastating failures of our current arrangements which ought to alarm Government. The usual suspects rear their weary heads – poor inter-agency communications, excessive bureaucracy, a failure to collect and transmit intelligence from prison, the tendency to focus and manage behaviour rather than overall risk, more apparent concern for the rights of the offender than community safety. A plodding data driven approach to dynamic risks. We have been here before.

But these deficiencies are dwarfed by the failures of the standard diagnostic tool for extremist risk, known as ERG 22.

Hall said that some of the tool’s users ‘seriously minimised' the gravity of the offending, and ‘accepted the offender’s characterisation (and in some cases denials) of offences of which they had been convicted.’ 

Imagine relying on such a ropey process to then inform decisions about future risk and threat management. I did when I conducted the government’s earlier review of Islamist extremism over four years ago and recommended that this secretive ‘in-house’ created risk tool was the subject of urgent external validation. 

We use this unverified behavioural process to make some of the most profound decisions about public safety. No other country in Europe has adopted our methodology, preferring instead in many cases to use a tool that more straightforwardly predicts dangerousness and has greater utility in non-terrorist offenders at risk of being radicalised. 

Usman Khan will almost certainly have been screened using the home-grown ERG tool and information gleaned – including his successful deception as a reformed character - will have informed his fateful release to murder two innocent people and traumatise the nation. Junk in, junk out.

It is not just the process that needs to be overhauled, there remains a cultural issue at the heart of this problem that Hall alludes to without in my view going far enough – I’m guessing because of time constraints. Our Prison service corporate management is dominated by what I would call a ‘reclamation theology’ – an unstinting belief that everyone no matter how awful the crime can be redeemed. This has filtered down through the counter-terrorism and extremist arrangements and its outworking can be seen in the way professionals, approach their ‘clients’ assessments in a ‘therapeutic’ encounter which risks becoming collusive rather than coldly focused on risk and dangerousness. 

I’m not suggesting that fundamental change is impossible – indeed I have outstanding professional colleagues, former extremists, who have been through this long, hard journey. Exactly the sorts of people you’d want advising on the authenticity of any rejection of violence. But we’ve seen the awful consequences of an over-reliance on prison psychologists, a moral universe removed from their extremist subjects who can and will be ‘gamed’ by sophisticated liars.

Hall’s report laments the absence of ‘Command and Control’ by ‘MAPPA’ – those multi-agency public protection arrangements – without the executive control over resources to successfully manage terrorist prisoners on release. 

This goes to the heart of my problem with what is otherwise a thorough and intelligent analysis. After counting the ways in which risk management of terrorists is failing, Hall then concludes that current arrangements are adequate (albeit with some improvements). 

I find this position truly baffling. MAPPA was invented to manage high-risk/high harm sex offenders and the arrangements for terrorists have been bolted on over the years. In defence of preserving these cut and shunt arrangements, it is merely noted that they are ‘well understood’ as if longevity were somehow an overriding virtue. They are apparently so well understood that Hall himself finds that there are police chiefs with no idea they have released terrorists on licence in the communities they are charged to protect! 

This complacency is worrying. We need fundamental change to the way we manage offenders inspired by ideology. Primarily, as this report demonstrates in many ways, those small numbers of extremely dangerous people should be managed from the start of their prison sentence to the end of their supervision in the community by one stand-alone agency with the expertise, experience and executive authority to make all decisions about their risk and management. Instead of any number of hurriedly commissioned and often imperfect reports at various hand off points in the offenders journey: court – prison – parole – probation/MAPPA,  we should have one dedicated case management unit predominantly staffed by front line practitioners. This unit would be able to build a detailed biographical knowledge of the offender, assertively challenge their toxic worldview, collect vital intelligence on future attacks and provide individualised support to change. 

Hall says that there might be an over-reliance on the terrorist’s performance in prison in predicting future threat. I agree. As long as we have prisons that leave terrorists alone in return for good behaviour, we will have that problem. We might well also be building time bombs.

Government is distracted by far greater woes than occasional terrorist murder right now. But few will forget the public outrage created by Usman Khan and Sudesh Amman either side of last Christmas, both released automatically but intent on bringing murder and mayhem to the streets of London. A small number of people are capable of causing hugely disproportionate harm where institutional naivety and flawed assessments have played a role. The Government has acted swiftly to close loopholes in the law meaning more terrorists will spend longer in prison. But most will be back amongst us one day soon. We are not well prepared. This report is a lost opportunity to help us be so.