(photo : Roe House, a prison within the Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland)
by Alan Travis
A hardcore of proselytising Islamist jihadis inside prisons in England and Wales are so dangerous they need to be isolated in special units in maximum security prisons, an official review into prison extremism has said.
The justice secretary, Michael Gove, told MPs on Wednesday that he was “extremely sympathetic” to the plan for the high-security “incapacitation” units, which will need the backing of the new home secretary before it can be implemented.
Ian Acheson, the head of the as yet unpublished prison extremism review, said the intelligence was now sufficient to say there was a small hardcore group of jihadi prisoners whose “proselytising behaviour” among the 12,500 Muslim inmates in England and Wales was so dangerous that they should be separated from the rest of the prison population.
He hinted in evidence to the Commons justice select committee that this hardcore of jihadi prisoners is already sometimes managing to engineer “the de facto separation” between Muslims and non-Muslims in some prison wings.
Acheson insisted the special units to be created in existing high security prisons would not be punitive but would need to be physically isolated from the rest of the prison grounds.
“There is intelligence that there are a small number of people whose behaviour is so egregious in relation to proselytising this pernicious ideology, this lethal nihilistic death cult ideology, which gets magnified inside prison particularly when you have a supply of young, impulsive and often highly violent men, that they need to be completely incapacitated from being able to proselytise to the rest of the prison population,” Acheson told the Commons justice select committee on Wednesday.
The development of the special units is a step away from the 50-year-old policy of dispersing the most dangerous terrorist and criminal prisoners throughout the network of high-security jails.
Acheson, a former Home Office official and prison governor, including in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison, said the review team spent more time talking about the concentration of highly dangerous Islamist extremists versus their dispersal than any other issue.
He said the group of hardcore jihadis that need to be separated had not all been convicted of terrorist offences; some had been convicted of criminal offences and had developed into extremists while in custody.
Acheson said they “tested the idea to destruction” over concentration versus dispersal and visited Maghaberry prison’s Roe house, the “prison within a prison” that holds some of Northern Ireland’s most high-profile terrorist prisoners. They visited prisons in the Netherlands, France and Spain where they are also starting to separate their jihadi prisoners to beneficial effect.
He said a sophisticated approach had to be taken in which each prisoner had an individual deradicalisation programme and the units were not seen as places where people would stay. Acheson told the MPs that if the special units were only punitive then they would fail and would create all the conditions for magnifying the sense of grievance that fuels some Islamist extremist behaviour.
Although some will claim the special units are Britain’s mini-Guantánamos, Acheson said: “It is not about prisons for Muslims or prisons for terrorists. It is a nuanced response that holds out the possibility of redemption.”
Gove told the MPs he was “very sympathetic” to the recommendations Acheson had made but the plan would need the backing of the new home secretary.
The review, which will only be published in a short summary, makes 65 recommendations and is sharply critical of the current approach for dealing with radicalisation inside prisons. Its recommendations include the recruitment of more Muslim prison officers and much better Prevent training for staff.