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

Pris­oner tells Arab News that ter­ror re­cruiters tar­get in­mates dur­ing prayer time Ex­trem­ist sep­a­ra­tion in spot­light as UK se­cu­rity threat level raised to crit­i­cal


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 antiex­trem­ism 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. Front­line 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.”

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

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)

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