Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’
Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’
The UK Ministry of Justice opened its first separation center in July and plans to open two more in the coming months — housing a total of 28 inmates.
It comes as Prime Minister Theresa May put Britain on its highest security footing following a London commuter train bombing that injured 30 people on Friday.
Separating inmates was one of the central recommendations of a review into extremism in prisons led by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, in 2016.
But the strategy has attracted criticism from some experts who claim it will fuel radicalization.
“Our view to separate extremist prisoners was born of an expert team looking at this very carefully over an extended period of time,” said Acheson in an exclusive interview with Arab News conducted before Friday’s terror attack, the fifth in Britain this year.
“If we thought this solution would exacerbate the problem, then clearly we would have been mad to implement it,” Acheson added.
“Given the scale of the problem, we believe it’s right to segregate a very small number of people whom intelligence suggests are actively subverting the prison system and national security by recruiting (potential extremists).”
Acheson added that separation is necessary to remove hate preachers from the rest of the prison population. “Anyone who says otherwise is completely wrong.”
Acheson said his review offered 69 recommendations to former Secretary of State for Justice Michael Gove, based on key findings. The Ministry of Justice has since publicly announced nine new anti-extremism measures for prisons.
As Britain’s first prison “separation center” is trialed at HMP Frankland, some experts have warned the move could make the problem worse.
John Horgan, professor at the Global Studies Institute and Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, told Arab News: “The idea of segregating radical prisoners from the rest of the prison population is a terrible idea. In an attempt to solve one problem it will create another, focusing and amplifying radicalization rather than curbing it.”
He continued: “It reeks of a knee-jerk political response and just isn’t very smart. Smart monitoring, supervision, program development, resourcing and staff training represent far better solutions.”
Denis MacEoin, a British analyst and writer and a senior fellow at New York’s Gatestone Institute, has previously described the British prison system as “Harvard for radicals.” He recommended extremists be housed in isolated units to stem further “plot making” even if it requires erecting new buildings.
One man who is serving a 24-year sentence in a UK prison told Arab News that prayer times were exploited by recruiters inside prison to lure vulnerable inmates.
“The extremists only recruit at Muslim prayer time, away from the other inmates,” said the prisoner, who spoke to Arab News on condition of anonymity.
“They get invited with a smile and promises of extra food and a nice environment. They become part of a gang and it’s the same as any other group in jail. You get fake friends.”
Acheson agreed with this analysis. “Prisoners make pragmatic decisions about their safety when they enter prisons, which are increasingly volatile environments. There is a slang called ‘Prislam’ which is a saying about a convert who reverts back to their own identity when the door is closed and nobody is observing them.”
He said: “Some people convert because it brings a sense of order and discipline to their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. They find meaning through faith, but there is a small number of people, often in relation to substance abuse or mental health problems, who are at risk of becoming converted and then exploited and manipulated into becoming a next-generation terrorist.”
Along with the separation centers, other measures introduced in UK prisons include a crackdown on extremist literature and the tightened vetting of prison chaplains. Front-line prison officers will also be equipped to crack down on extremist behavior with new training, skills and powers.
Acheson said: “A lot of the recommendations stayed below the water line because of issues with national security. But I am led to believe that the vast majority of the recommendations are being implemented.”
Acheson said the need for training among prison staff is pressing. “It was quite clear to us that officers felt unconfident about tackling extremist language and beliefs.”
MacEoin, who authored the controversial report “The Hijacking of British Islam” for the right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange, emphasized that countering extremism in prisons is important for both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
“Let’s say a young Muslim goes to prison for shoplifting, he could be taken under the wing of a militant Muslim. They will be very friendly but then they gradually work on him and radicalize him. We know that this has happened in very many cases,” he said.
“It’s a concern for the general public because these people turn into terrorists but it’s also a concern for the Muslim population because normal young Muslims may come out of prisons with radicalized views. Muslims don’t want extremists within their population.”
Acheson said a very complex set of factors inform prisoner decisions to convert to Islam. “Some people will convert to Islam for pragmatic reasons; in effect it’s the biggest gang in some prisons.
“If you’re a young man coming into prison for the first time, you will search for meaning and security and you may convert at least out of convenience and for fellowship and protection.
“For some vulnerable individuals, it goes further as they are exploited and become proselytizers for Islamic extremism. It’s those people we are very concerned about. They could be converted to becoming terrorists when released and radicalized.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, told Arab News: “The jury is out on whether these anti-radicalization measures will be successful, as it is very early days.
“We are encouraged, however, that the prison authorities are moving cautiously and that only very small numbers of prisoners are being separated from the general population. Talk of ‘jihadi jails’ are wide of the mark.
“Whether or not this approach proves to be effective, there are broader problems in the English and Welsh prison system that urgently need addressing. Prisons are violent and overcrowded, with record levels of suicide and self-harm.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said in a statement: “We have delivered on our plans to house the most subversive prisoners in separation centers — preventing their influence over others — and have also boosted the ability of front-line staff to challenge extremist views by providing over 7,000 staff with enhanced training to tackle this evolving threat.”
ANALYSIS: Pakistan’s new government unlikely to improve ties with Kabul
- Analysts says Ghani’s politically and ethnically divided government has neither the ability nor the options to reduce the new wave of tension and mistrust between the two countries
- Pakistan may resort to putting further pressure on Kabul until a new Afghan government is in place, say experts
KABUL: When Imran Khan won Pakistan’s elections last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was one of the first leaders to congratulate him. Ghani issued an official invitation to Khan to visit Kabul in an effort to start a new chapter in the historically uneasy relations between the two neighbors.
The sense of optimism in Kabul followed Khan’s pledge in his victory speech that he wanted a EU-style soft border with Afghanistan despite the fact that he had struck a pro-Taliban stance in the past.
Less than a month on, that sense of optimism seems to have faded following events on the battlefield, particularly a major assault by the Taliban on the city of Ghazni last week.
Local officials allege that Pakistan assisted the Taliban in Ghazni, and Ghani subsequently stated that Taliban soldiers wounded in the attack had been taken to Pakistan for treatment. All of which reduces the odds of any improvement in relations in the near future.
Analysts have suggested that Ghani’s politically and ethnically divided government, which has suffered a number of successive losses in battle, has neither the ability nor the options to reduce the new wave of tension and mistrust between the two countries.
They predict that, instead, Pakistan may resort to putting further pressure on Kabul until a new Afghan government is in place. Presidential elections are currently slated for April.
“I do not think that these challenges and tensions will decrease until a new government comes to power here,” Ahmad Saeedi, an analyst who served as a diplomat in Pakistan told Arab News. “There will be even tougher times ahead, with militants possibly targeting more major cities and even Kabul.”
Saeedi said that recent talks between the Taliban and US officials may further embolden the Taliban to step up their attacks so they can speak from a position of strength in future talks, something he said Islamabad wants in order to balance India’s growing influence in Afghanistan.
He added that Washington and NATO — both of whom have troops in Afghanistan — may only want to prevent the total collapse of Ghani’s government, but that they do not seem to trust “the government’s weak leadership to have the ability to govern.”
Waheed Mozdah, another analyst, said Afghan officials have no strong evidence to prove Pakistan’s involvement in the Taliban’s victory in Ghazni, which has struck another major blow to Ghani’s administration.
He pointed out, too, that Ghani’s allegations are unlikely to help improve relations with Pakistan. “After Ghani’s allegations, I do not think Imran Khan even will visit Afghanistan,” he said. “Ghani’s comments are not helpful at all. He seems to have turned the new government in Pakistan against him.”
When contacted by Arab News, government spokesman Shah Hussain Murtazawi said Kabul expected these problems to be solved, but did not elaborate on the government’s plans to do so.
During a recent visit to Ghazni, Ghani accused Khan of not honoring his pledge as an ethnic Pashtun and directed the same charge at Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa.
“Imran Khan, you are the son of Pashtun parents. Investigate this and give me an answer. Gen. Bajwa, you have repeatedly given me assurances over phone calls that special attention would be given to the issue of peace in Afghanistan once elections took place in Pakistan. Now give me an answer,” Ghani said, while addressing a group of tribal elders attending the jirga on Friday.