LONDON: The UK government has started sending extremist prisoners to its latest “separation” center as experts warn that longer sentences for lower-level offenders could increase their chances of deeper radicalization.
Special centers for the most dangerous terror offenders have been set up after a 75 percent increase in prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offenses in the last three years.
Pressure is also expected to grow on penal systems across the Middle East and Europe as they deal with foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Syria after the collapse of Daesh.
In the UK there is growing concern that prisons are acting as incubators for extremism, with violent young offenders being brainwashed by hardcore extremist recruiters.
Sentencing Council for England and Wales guidelines have raised the minimum charge for the “preparation of terrorism” from three to six years, compared to 21 months to five years previously. The move comes despite concerns that longer jail terms could expose prisoners to greater risk of radicalization.
“We have to be careful who we are imprisoning,” said Ian Acheson, a former prison governor whose review of Islamic extremism in UK prisons last year led to the creation of separate units in prison for extremists. “Prisons are ideal places for radicalization, where violent men are mixing with the country’s most adept proselytisers.”
Acheson’s concerns mirror those of the Parole Board, which has warned that radicalization within prisons is likely to continue and increasing penalties for less serious offenders — such as those found guilty of spreading terrorist material online — could “result in them becoming more likely to commit terrorist acts when they are released.”
Acheson told Arab News: “Criminals are searching for meaning, they can be violent, impulsive, alienated and harbor grievances — so they can be vulnerable to radicalization and it’s a problem.”
However, the former prison officer stressed that the new separation units are not “Jihadi jails” or “Guantanamo Bays,” but in place, he said, to separate the “preacher from the audience.”
“They are not exclusively for Muslims and they are separation units, not segregation units,” he said, adding that most of the separated inmates are Islamic extremists.
The separation unit at HMP Frankland — Britain’s highest security prison — was the first to open in June last year.
Frankland has housed Tanvir Hussain, who planned to down flights from Heathrow to the US using liquid bombs hidden in soft drink bottles and Omar Khayam, convicted of planning to blow up Bluewater shopping center in Kent.
More recently, Michael Adebolajo, who murdered Lee Rigby in London in 2013, was transferred to Frankland amid fears he was attempting to radicalize prisoners in Belmarsh.
Khalid Masood, who killed five people, including a policeman, in an attack in London in March 2017, was reportedly radicalized in prison.
HMP Full Sutton near York opened the UK’s second separation unit last month and HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire is to open the country’s third unit in the coming months. The three centers will hold up to 28 of the most subversive extremist prisoners in the system.
In total, there were 213 individuals in custody in Britain after being charged with or convicted of terrorism-related offenses at the end of September 2017, a rise of more than a quarter on the previous year.
The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that 700 prisoners have been identified as a potential radicalization risk “due to their extremist views” as well as “foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq hardened and dangerous.”
Acheson continued: “The units are set up to incapacitate those who are most dangerous. But we have to be careful about those who are convicted of lesser offenses; they need to be offered another way and not necessarily jail time. They need be cut off from the dangerous and manipulative proselytisers.”
However, the view from those on the inside of prisons is mixed. A serving London-based prisoner officer, who asked not to be named, told Arab News: “Radical recruitment happens a lot, but I think people do it for the safety in numbers… Most of them don’t follow it properly but will attend prayers,” he said.
“The problem is when the big players mix with the half-hearted people and then convince them to do something when they get out.”
A former prisoner, who served three years of a six-year term, wrote to Arab News on Twitter under the handle @cookinginakettle. “Firstly, let me say that the hype about Muslims in prison is just that, hype. People believe that Muslims get what they want and control the prisons. It’s true that it’s the case for some wings in the high security estate, but on the whole, they’re just like the majority of other prisoners: just trying to make it through the system one day at a time.”
He said there are people who try to “radicalize their own firebrand version of Islam,” highlighting a small segment of inmates who prey on young, naive prisoners and recruit them for protection. “They sell the illusion of brotherhood. They prey upon the vulnerable, those with no direction. When people are at their lowest ebb they believe they will be saved by religion and so they will join the brotherhood.”
In other situations, the extremists will offer food and other resources to incoming prisoners, he said. “This fosters the sense of brotherhood and puts people in their debt. As such, this drives people on to be their soldiers. On the whole, it’s just like any gang and Muslims end up being the biggest gang in a prison.”
Jackie Marshall, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, said radicalization inside prisons is “just something we have deal with.” “What happens in the outside world tends to happen in prisons,” he said.
Marshall said jail populations are swelling beyond control for many reasons, including a surge in historic sex offenders and those convicted of terrorism-related charges. “My biggest concern is that prisons are understaffed and becoming increasingly violent. We currently have 169 staff staying in hotels to cover shortages across the country. Staff are leaving due to underfunding and there is a crisis,” he said.
A former education worker for a London prison told Arab News: “People think the outside world stops in prisons, but it doesn’t. Whatever happens outside, happens inside.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he added: “The average literacy in prisons is low, the prisoners in general have very poor general knowledge and so they are vulnerable — this directly affects radicalization rates.”
The former teacher said: “I often thought to myself, ‘who can’t radicalize this lot?’ You see the perfect conditions for radicalization in that environment. A chap comes in who has a bit of charisma and he is a bit more well-read than the other chaps. He gives these lost souls a vision and a purpose, it doesn’t matter what purpose. These people are often already violent, a perfect combination for radicalization.”
But he remained circumspect about the creation of separation units. Referring to the historically disastrous case of Maze prison in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, where republican and loyalist prisoners organized along military lines, running their respective H-blocks, he said: “Separation made the IRA terrorists even worse. It’s a difficult issue. I just worry where this all going. Britain is supposed to be a liberal country and where will it end?”