Ian Acheson

Why prisons are still failing to stop Islamist terror

Why prisons are still failing to stop Islamist terror
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Johnathan Hall QC has done the state a service. His cogent report on prison terrorism, published today, compliments and advances work I started in 2016 to alert the government to the profound problems in how we manage ideologically motivated offenders in our jails.

Hall’s report critically examines the contemporary threat of violent extremism from within the prison walls – where at the last count reside some 230 offenders convicted of terrorist offences and a greater number who are at risk of radicalisation or already radicalised. The vast majority of these offenders are motivated by Islamist extremism which explains his report’s focus.

He begins by making two stark points, obvious to those of us who have paid attention to jail jihad. First, the impact of Islamist groups in custody has been ‘under appreciated’ (I would say wilfully ignored) for years. Secondly, at the time of writing, the last four completed terrorist attacks were committed by prisoners either serving their sentence in custody or under community supervision.

The organisation which holds and too often fumbles this acute risk is Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Hall is balanced in his assessment of its performance – while it is unfair and simplistic to label all these attacks as catastrophic system failures, it is equally ‘inexcusable’ to succumb to despair and inaction. From my less charitable perspective I see a culture of learned helplessness that needs decisive ministerial heft to shift. Only two years ago we came disturbingly close to the murder of a prison officer in our supposedly highest security prison, HMP Whitemoor. This, if nothing else, should concentrate the minds of ministers.

There is much else to be worried about in Hall’s description of a system of risk management which is seen through the progressive lens of ‘vulnerability’ rather than in terms of the potential harm those screened can cause.

Prison officers continue to be poorly equipped to confront and deal with Islamist hate for fear of being seen as racist – something I found when I looked at the problem six years ago. This had led to Islamist extremism being seen as an immutable part of the prison landscape rather than unacceptable behaviour that ought to be confronted and dealt with. It is in those ungoverned spaces where the power balance shifts from the state to charismatic prisoners with malign intent.

Hall described a ‘fearful’ environment where there is more violence and fewer staff trying to hold the line and outcompeted in a power struggle with Muslims convicted of serious terrorist offences who rise to be in charge. This creates a gang culture that ‘glorifies’ and venerates terrorist behaviours and motives. It has certainly nothing to do with rehabilitation.

Many of Hall’s findings had a depressing ring of familiarity about them. Few were more alarming than his observation that he could not get a sense of the scale of the problem of Islamist extremism because no national ‘dashboard’ exists across our 104 public sector prisons that would allow senior officials – and by extension ministers – to know whether and why the extremism temperature was going up or down. This is extraordinary.

I warned about the very same critical knowledge gap in 2016 and recommended that such a system was put in place without delay. To be still relying on largely anecdotal guesswork at this stage for diagnosis is a dereliction of duty. While this is a failure of corporate leadership Hall also alludes to how the criminally stupid political culling of prison staff and experience through austerity resulted in low levels of supervision and authority which risks Islamist gang culture flourishing. There is plenty of blame to go around.

Hall makes many sensible and well-argued recommendations to fix some of these longstanding ills. Among them is a requirement for explicit direction to prison governors to have policies in place and be judged by actions that counter terrorism. One gets the sense of a man who has waded through endless reams of policy word salad on extremism looking in vain for the mention of the word ‘terrorism.’ Hall wants prison governors and their staff to have an active, clear and over-riding priority to reduce the terror threat in their prisons. Most readers will be baffled at the need to restate this surely obvious requirement. Most readers will be unaware of the extent to which institutional timidity and an obsession with fashionable criminological theory has blunted the capability of this national law enforcement agency.

He’s also clear on the need for the more robust use of the separation centres I recommended created to isolate and incapacitate our most determined and subversive prisoners. These centres were established, mothballed and mired in so much risk averse bureaucracy by senior officials who opposed them that they have never achieved their potential.

There are many other important recommendations, not least to require the police and Crown Prosecution Service to go after convicted prisoners who commit terrorist offences while in custody.

The government has accepted the vast majority of these recommendations. There is new energy and momentum, largely as a result of the newish and well led Joint Extremism Unit which has forced the Ministry of Justice to share primacy over terrorist prisoner management with the Home Office.

Money and commitment is finally flowing in the right direction. While extreme right wing terrorism is a growing phenomenon, the prison service’s longstanding failure to deal with a much more lethal Islamist threat is again in the spotlight. We can’t afford Hall’s excellent report to gather dust. Over to you, Mr Raab. Keep the pressure on.

Written byIan Acheson

Professor Ian Acheson is a former prison governor. He was also Director of Community Safety at the Home Office

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