Ian Acheson

We need to stamp out extremism in our prisons

We need to stamp out extremism in our prisons
HMP Belmarsh (photo: Getty)
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Jonathan Hall QC, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has launched an inquiry into how our prison service is managing the threat posed by terrorism. The backdrop to his review is the rapidly accumulating evidence that, across our penal system, violent extremism has increased its grip resulting in outrageous attacks on either side of the prison walls.

In an interview with the Times, Hall said he found it ‘astonishing’ that convicted terrorists, far from being at risk from other vengeful inmates, achieve iconic status. This is not astonishing for those of us who have been writing and arguing for some years about the need for a transformed response to jail extremism that goes beyond benign containment.

The shifting demographics within our prisons, the rise of an oppositional prisoner culture and the collapse of order have all created a fertile environment for the growth of lethally toxic ideologies. The charismatic hate preacher now has virtually unfettered access to violent, troubled young men, either yearning for meaning or making pragmatic decisions for their own safety. This is combined with a broken risk management system, crude interventions that don’t work, fearful ill-equipped and insufficient frontline staff and a senior managerial cadre that puts wokeness ahead of national security. The result is radicalisation with impunity and a trail of dead and traumatised citizens. We can and we must do better. In January last year tragedy was avoided by mere seconds, after a prison officer was nearly murdered by armed terrorists dressed in suicide belts in our highest security prison. The Justice secretary could easily have ended up following a coffin with a Union flag on it (which as he’s an honourable man, would have led to his resignation).

So where does Mr Hall begin? He should not start at Prison Service Headquarters. He must ask, as I did during my independent review into Islamic extremism, for private access to frontline prison officers. They spend the most time with terrorists and it is essential to understand the reality of the world they work in to gain crucial insights into how extremists operate and how the law can assist in frustrating their objectives.

Working upwards, he needs to know whether and to what extent the prisons internal adjudication system is working to control the behaviour of terrorists. He needs to understand if the prisons incident reporting system is properly reporting conflict with a ‘faith’ component and check for any signs of under-reporting.

He needs to see how effective prison intelligence systems can be improved to pick up people like Reading terrorist Khairi Saadallah who was allowed to associate with an influential Islamist preacher for weeks. Hall needs to map the spread of extremism that extends beyond the ‘rock star’ jihadists in our high security jails and manifests itself in our much more poorly resourced medium-security estate. He needs to look at the role of the Crown Prosecution Service to quantify how robust their cultural as well as legalistic commitment is to charging terrorists and extremists who may be serving huge sentences and who continue to plot or attack staff. He needs to see if and how the growing number of extreme right-wing prisoners impacts on the rule of law in custody and changes prison dynamics.

In terms of the separation centres I recommended in 2016, which identify highly subversive terrorist offenders and contain them from the rest of the prison estate, it is clear that something is going badly wrong. It has been reported that just five people are currently held in separation centres, with reportedly only one remaining open. We plainly have a threat across the system that is larger than this and for whatever reason – culture, bureaucracy or incompetence – there is a lack of will to target and remove the sort of people who my sources tell me continue to operate freely to recruit others to Islamist jihad. This is intolerable. If credible intelligence exists, such people should be completely incapacitated, whether or not they subsequently respond to interventions. Stopping the contagion of terrorist violence is at least as important as treating the causes. If the law can be strengthened to allow separation to happen more readily and with less red tape, this will be extremely useful.

A senior operational manager, writing to me this morning in some despair, states that in prisons the default approach to extremism is passive, procedural compliance with ‘zero assertiveness or dynamism.’ This is a product of a hopelessly fractured risk management system that still sees prison merely as the box bad people are put in until released and handed over to another set of professionals.

Mr Hall appears not to agree with me on this. He decided in an earlier report that our Heath Robinson multi-agency set up was largely fit for purpose albeit with some important caveats and welcome improvements. This worries me. It is the same conceptual approach that has let numerous people fall through its net. Perhaps Mr Hall will look again at replacing the many agencies we have with differing remits and outlooks with one unified extremist offender risk management service.

In the end we could probably do with more law in prisons and I wish Mr Hall well with his analysis. What we need more urgently though is an operational culture that returns our prison service to its first priorities – a law enforcement agency that protects the public and safeguards national security. That is a political as well as legal challenge.