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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Jihadi Jails

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Only this week, Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, has called for the government to consider calling in the Army to restore order in prisons. This is his latest plea for reform to the prison system after his 2016 review, commissioned by the then Secretary of State for Justice, assessing the threat posed by Islamist extremism and radicalism to British prisons and probation services and the measures that should be taken to counteract that threat.

The Review concluded that Islamist extremism now poses a ‘clear and present danger’ to national security. Several recommendations were proposed including the need for suitable training for staff, enabling them to distinguish religious from cultural traditions, and more controversially suggesting that the small subset of extremists who present a particular and enduring risk to national security should be removed from the general prison population and held in specialist units where they should be given effective de-radicalisation interventions.

Acheson stated that there is a small ‘hard-core’ group of jihadi prisoners whose ‘proselytising behaviour’ among the 12,500 Muslim inmates in England and Wales is so dangerous that the only solution is to remove them from the rest of the prison population. The environment of prisons is arguably the perfect melting pot for radicalisation with the plethora of young, angry, vulnerable individuals who are impulsive and often highly violent. Dr Usama Hasan, the Head of Islamist Studies at Quilliam International (a counter-extremism organisation) has commented on the potentially detrimental effect prisons can have on young individuals, highlighting the cases of several 16-year-olds who go into UK prisons for petty crimes and leave two or three years later having been radicalised and transformed into dangerous terrorists.

This new approach will be a marked departure from the fifty-year-old policy of dispersing the most dangerous terrorists throughout the eight top-security prisons in the network. Acheson has claimed that although this dispersal policy was effective in the past in managing the relatively small number of Irish Republican prisoners, it is imperative to update and modernise this approach given this new, unique and forceful emerging threat of Islamist extremism. Prisons in the Netherlands, France and Spain have previously followed a similar approach, which has had positive effects.

The process of transferring these individuals to these specialist separation units across England and Wales has already commenced, with those who have been selected having been chosen on the basis of the risk they pose to national security or their past planning of terrorist offences. The notorious Islamist hate preacher, Anjem Choudary, has already been relocated to HMP Frankland near Durham,[1] with the other two units located at HMP Full Sutton (near York) and HMP Woodhill near Milton Keynes.

So far, the Ministry of Justice has disclosed that more than 4,500 front line officers have received specialist counter-terrorism training, yet with a maximum capacity for only 28 prisoners across all three units, only time will tell how far this will prove to be an efficient system capable of lasting effects. There have been legitimate concerns given that statistics show there are currently 186 prisoners in the system convicted of terrorist or extreme offences. These individuals are ready and willing to die for their religion, so do these ‘de-radicalisation’ measures actually have the potential to transform their fundamental beliefs (and should they?) or will it only increase the anger and grievance they already feel?

Undoubtedly something needed to be done, before this surge of Islamist extremism boiled over into more lethal attacks. Yet, only time will tell whether these ‘jihadi jails’ will merely become like ‘mini-Guantanamos’[2] or, whether, as Acheson hopes, it will not be about creating more punitive, separate Muslim prisons, but creating a ‘nuanced response that holds out the possibility of redemption.’[3]

Matilda Jacobs

Human Rights Section Editor

Saturday 3rd March, 2018


Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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