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Why Are Prisons Failing to Prevent Terrorism?

Content Warning: The article below contains brief descriptions of violent terrorist acts which may be disturbing to some readers.

The effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes in UK prisons has been under growing scrutiny since the 2019 London Bridge attack when a terrorist prisoner out on licence, stabbed two people to death. The incident was followed by two more attacks in early 2020 when, in January, two convicted terrorists attempted to murder a prison officer at HMP Whitemoor and, in February, a convicted terrorist stabbed two people in Streatham days after being realised from prison.

The incidents prompted governmental and third-sector calls for prison reforms regarding violent terrorist offenders, with Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, stating that the attacks had confronted the government “with some hard truths about how we deal with terrorist offenders”, and The Prison Officers' Association calling for a "fundamental review" of the UK's de-radicalisation programmes.

In April 2022, a review of terrorist activity in prisons across England and Wales was conducted by the government's independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, Jonathan Hall QC. The report concludes that current internal policies pay insufficient attention to taking action to mitigate radicalisation within prisons. Instead, some terrorists in prison enjoy ‘high status’ among their fellow (often less violent) inmates amid a culture of fear and violence in jails in England and Wales, a problem further exacerbated by growing staff and funding cuts.

Jonathan Hall QC makes several suggestions which may be taken to ‘reduce the risk of terrorist violence in prison or elsewhere’. These policies for action include:

  • “Prohibiting informal gatherings or access to certain parts of the prison where informal gatherings may be held”.

  • “Prohibiting prisoners leading prayers or giving religious instruction in their cell or elsewhere”.

  • “Removing individuals from official collective worship”.

  • “Requiring a particular prisoner to seek permission for having possession of any new text”.

  • “Interviews of prisoners, overtly recorded in writing, in which prisoners are asked to explain potential terrorist risk behaviour”.

The specific steps for action which Jonathan Hall QC suggests target Islamist terrorism more than any other ideology in prison, even though the most recent Prevent data reveals that “mixed, unstable or unclear” ideologies now account for more than half of all referrals to the anti-radicalisation strategy and that a quarter relates to far-right extremism.

More recently, in May 2022, a leaked review of the current "Prevent" strategy (part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, which aims to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”) claims that the government’s counter-terrorism programme has been too focused on right-wing extremism and should have a renewed focus on Islamist extremism. Government advisers have openly questioned the direction of the leaked Prevent review, which is said to be “circa 2004-2007” – a reference to a period of high-profile Islamist attacks which included the 7/7 London bombings- and does not “reflect what’s going on at all”. Since 2007, the terrorism landscape has evolved significantly, with a growing prevalence of right-wing terrorism and incel violence. However, contrary to the evidence, the review claims that Prevent is treating “mainstream, rightwing-leaning commentary” as far-right and ignoring Islamist propaganda. This comes at a time when Prevent referrals over Islamist ideology have fallen to 22 percent, while 46 percent now relate to far-right extremism.

Following the report, Secretary of State for Justice and Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab announced that ‘in line with Jonathan Hall’s recommendation’ a new team - set up at the cost of £1.2 million - will identify the most influential terrorists in prisons with the view of moving them to one of three new separation centres. Raab comments that the UK has "allowed understandable cultural and religious sensitives to deter us", and this policy will "make sure we've got the common sense balance", proposing a Bill of Rights which will prevent terrorists from using the Human Rights Act to claim a ‘right to socialise’ in prison.

The approach is, arguably, out of touch with the terrorism threat. For example, the most recent government data shows that on 31 March 2022:

“Of those in custody, 159 (68%) were categorised as holding Islamist-extremist views, two more compared to the previous year. A further 57 (24%) were categorised as holding Extreme Right-Wing ideologies, up by 30% and a three percentage point increase compared to the previous year”.

But, as aforementioned, out of the number of individuals referred to Prevent, 46 percent were concerned with right-wing ideology, compared to 22 percent with Islamist ideology, as reported by the government. This demonstrates that the far-right threat is increasingly prevalent, yet our prevention techniques focus primarily on Islamic communities. This could be partly to blame, Florence Keen, Research Fellow within RUSI's Centre for Financial Crime & Security Studies, says, by the fact that it “may be easier for governments to say this is exactly what it is. With far-right ideologies it can be so broad that it often evades definition”.

Though Raab acknowledged that “the threat from terrorism is evolving, so our response must adapt”, this new approach may create more problems than it solves, evolving to the wrong threats. Isolating terrorists in separation centres is problematic. Whilst it may, on the surface, patch up the issue of radicalisation in prisons, it does not solve the issue of radicalisation within separation centres, or pre-prison spaces. Social isolation is a known driver of extremism, which has been further exacerbated by Covid-induced seclusion, suggesting the new plans could create a dangerous echo chamber of radicalisation in which deradicalisation becomes increasingly complex and the prevent strategy becomes redundant.

In what some have called a ‘gift to the far-right’, the attention on Islamist terrorism in Prevent reform likely means that interventions in the pre-criminal space are out of touch. As a result, Islamic communities may feel targeted by prevention programmes which are misinformed, far-right terrorist groups may become more prevalent, and those individuals who are vulnerable to radicalisation may slip through a net which is not fit for purpose.

The two reports show little agreement on how terrorism should be tackled, what is the main threat, and how prisons should respond. At present, there are 215 individuals in custody for terrorism-connected offences in Great Britain, and ‘individuals convicted of serious terrorism offences in the early 2000s, such as Usman Khan, are now being released or becoming eligible for release’. We have a responsibility to protect society from the threat terrorism poses, but we also have an equal and more far-reaching responsibility to protect individuals from radicalisation in the first place. Failing to understand the evolving landscape of terrorism in society, or prisons, threatens to undermine these goals on both counts.


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