We might not care for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon but we should care very much about what happens to him in prison over the next two months or so. Lennon, also known as ‘Tommy Robinson’, was convicted at the Old Bailey yesterday for contempt of court after he live-streamed footage of defendants on trial for sexual exploitation arriving at court.
Yaxley-Lennon had previously served time in custody for this but was freed on appeal pending a retrial. Just to make matters more complicated, he was also sentenced yesterday for an earlier contempt committed at Canterbury Crown court in 2017, again at a rape trial that involved four Asian defendants that attracted a suspended sentence, now activated. The upshot is ten weeks behind bars for interfering with the administration of justice in ways that might have jeopardised two trials for serious offences.
It’s not hard to see why the sometimes tortuous and opaque machinations of our criminal justice system is a wet dream for conspiracists like those operating around Lennon, both at home and particularly in the US. The fact that his actions outside both courts, self-described as ‘journalism’, might have resulted in victims of terrible crimes never receiving justice fades into insignificance when your base has a rapacious appetite for the red meat of grievance and alienation.
For example, much is now being made of the possibility that Lennon will be sent to the tabloid Guantanamo of choice, HMP Belmarsh, in south London. Belmarsh is a multi-functional local prison serving the London courts that is also designed to hold potential (remanded) and actual category A prisoners. As such it is part of the prison services High Security estate. It is, in fact, perfectly normal for Lennon to be sent there, if he has been, to either serve all of his short sentence or be allocated to another prison more suitable to his risk factors.
The prospect of Lennon being ‘in the cement’ in close proximity to convicted Islamist extremists is too juicy for some to ignore, whatever the reality. While Lennon has form for fraud and minor acts of violence, what he stands for and what he did, elevates him to iconic status and does make him a potential target. This presents a dilemma for the prison authorities. Prisoners are meant to be kept in the lowest conditions of security commensurate with the risk they pose. However, the risk here is probably to Lennon himself and by extension the severe reaction both inside prison, where far right extremism is gathering strength, and among his supporters, if he were to be physically attacked.
There are various administrative ways that the prison service can use to limit this risk by segregating Lennon in the interests of ‘good order or discipline’ for some or all of his sentence. This, of course, can easily look like more persecution of the ‘victim’ because segregation inevitably, often dramatically, reduces access to the services, facilities and opportunities prisoners are entitled to. Lennon made much of this in his earlier period of incarceration when he complained that his segregation for his own safety amounted to ‘mental torture.’
The headache for the prison authorities is also compounded by both a bureaucratic disposition for secrecy and very real issues of data protection. In Lennon’s last jail rodeo, his allies in alt-right media had a field day with all sorts of nonsense about him being sent from a minority to a majority Muslim prison on the orders of Sajid Javid.
Other lurid allegations about Lennon being deliberately placed in a cell beside a Mosque (the prison didn’t have one) and excrement being pushed through his cell door (didn’t happen) fly half way around the world on social media before the poor prison service has its boots on.
Again, there’s no easy way out. If the authorities disclose personal details about an individual prisoner, even in an effort to counter the pernicious propaganda, they risk breaching privacy laws. If they remain silent – the default – it looks like the inventions are true. The IRA used this hesitancy to its advantage in the 1980s during the terrorist hunger strike in the Maze prison. It succeeded in hyping its base up outside with ever more outlandish claims about torture. This hugely inflamed disorder and lethal violence outside the prison walls. It also led to the murder of prison officers.
The analogy isn’t as fanciful as you might think. The republican objective was to sell the idea that its combatants in the Maze were political prisoners subject to official persecution.
Lennon and his far-right support base have precisely the same objectives. There really is a spooky synergy going on at the extremes of ideological thought. In prison, these malign forces are amplified and the real possibility exists for confrontation, something our disordered prison system is uniquely unprepared for just now.
In this situation, the only possible recourse for the state is to lose well. It must take all the steps it can to ensure that Lennon is physically protected, even at a possible cost to his psychological wellbeing or at the risk of litigation.
Why look at it like that? On a hierarchy of risks with extremist-related prisoners, martyrdom sits way above grievance. Polarisation over Brexit has fashioned the far right with the logistical and intellectual underpinnings to create serious social disorder.
If all Lennon has to complain about when he emerges from the prison gates is extreme boredom and a habit for soggy chips, it will be a triumph. A well-run rural Category C prison with poor transport links, a good segregation unit and an easily defended perimeter would be my choice. There are still a few of them about. He might even enjoy the rest.
While it’s important to resist the lies and fake news Lennon’s latest sojourn in the prison system will generate, there is a wider, more difficult question to ponder. The Tommy Robinson brand was created in part from a belief held by a worryingly large number of our citizens that entrenched institutional timidity has created an environment where south Asian men, predominantly of Pakistani heritage, can prey on white girls with impunity.
There is genuine, not confected anger and horror at the scale of such abuse and the hand-wringing uselessness of statutory agencies mired in cultural relativism to deal with it. In Northern cities often polarised by race and poverty – Huddersfield, Rotherham, Rochdale, Telford, to name a few – trials like the ones Lennon tried to disrupt have resulted in hefty prison sentences for Asian gangs who groomed and sexually tortured predominantly white girls.
Sajid Javid, acknowledging the strength of public outcry, has commissioned research into whether there is an association between this sort of ‘touchstone’ sexual violence and race. If we aren’t straight with people on the outcome of such overdue research – and we don’t deal robustly with the consequences – Tommy Robinson will continue to rally people to his cause, both in custody and after his release.