Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’

A police officer stands guard outside the Horse Guards Parade in London. Police arrested an 18-year-old man on Saturday in connection to their investigation into Friday’s bombing on an Underground train. (AFP)
Updated 17 September 2017
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Segregation plan defended after UK prison system dubbed ‘Harvard for radicals’

LONDON: The author of a landmark review of extremism in British prisons has defended a controversial strategy to separate “subversive offenders” from other inmates.
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.”

Smart monitoring
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.”


Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

An ambulance is pictured surrounded by thousands of protesters dressed in black during a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 17 June 2019
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Hong Kong police begin to clear streets of protesters

  • Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police and protesters faced off Monday as authorities began trying to clear the streets of a few hundred who remained near the city government headquarters after massive demonstrations that stretched deep into the night before.
The police asked for cooperation in clearing the road. Protesters, many in masks and other gear to guard against possible use of tear gas, responded with chants, some kneeling in front of the officers. The move came after activists rejected an apology from the city’s top leader for her handling of legislation that has stoked fears of expanding control from Beijing in this former British colony.
Hundreds of protesters sat on and along a main road through downtown, but they were scattered over a relatively wide area.
Activists called on Hong Kong residents to boycott classes and work, though it was unclear how many might heed that call.
Nearly 2 million of the city’s 7 million people turned out on Sunday, according to estimates by protest organizers. Police said 338,000 were counted on the designated protest route in the “peak period” of the march. A week earlier as many as 1 million people demonstrated to voice their concern over Hong Kong’s relations with mainland China in one of the toughest tests of the territory’s special status since Beijing took control in a 1997 handover.
After daybreak Monday, police announced that they want to clear the streets. Soon after, police lined up several officers deep and faced off against several hundred demonstrators on a street in central Hong Kong.
The night before, as protesters reached the march’s end thousands gathered outside the city government headquarters and the office of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who on Saturday suspended her effort to force passage of the bill.
Hong Kong residents worry that allowing some suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China would be another of many steps chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal autonomy. One concern is that the law might be used to send criminal suspects to China to potentially face vague political charges, possible torture and unfair trials.
The protesters are demanding that Lam scrap the proposal for good and that she step down.
Protesters are also angered over the forceful tactics by police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forceful measures as demonstrators broke through barricades outside the city government’s headquarters to quell unrest during demonstrations on Wednesday, and over Lam’s decision to call the clashes a riot. That worsens the potential legal consequences for those involved.
In a statement issued late Sunday, Lam noted the demonstrations and said the government “understands that these views have been made out of love and care for Hong Kong.”
“The chief executive apologizes to the people of Hong Kong for this and pledges to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public,” it said.
Not enough, said the pro-democracy activists.
“This is a total insult to and fooling the people who took to the street!” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
Protesters have mainly focused their anger on Lam, who had little choice but to carry through dictates issued by Beijing, where President Xi Jinping has enforced increasingly authoritarian rule. But some were skeptical that having Lam step down would help.
“It doesn’t really matter because the next one would be just as evil,” said Kayley Fung, 27.
Many here believe Hong Kong’s legal autonomy has been significantly diminished despite Beijing’s insistence that it is still honoring its promise, dubbed “one country, two systems,” that the territory can retain its own social, legal and political system for 50 years after the handover in 1997.
After Lam announced she was suspending the legislation to avoid more violence and allow additional debate, Chinese government officials issued multiple statements backing that decision. Lam, however, made clear she was not withdrawing it.
She has sidestepped questions over whether she should quit and also defended how the police dealt with last week’s clashes with demonstrators.
Lam insists the extradition legislation is needed if Hong Kong is to uphold justice, meet its international obligations and not become a magnet for fugitives. The proposed bill would expand the scope of criminal suspect transfers to include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
So far, China has been excluded from Hong Kong’s extradition agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Prosecutions of activists, detentions without trial of five Hong Kong book publishers and the illegal seizure in Hong Kong by mainland agents of at least one mainland businessman are among moves in recent years that have unnerved many in the city of 7 million.