He will begin his sentence of ten years in Belmarsh prison, where radicalisation opportunities are rife, as confirmed by Ian Acheson’s review published this week on “Islamic Extremism in Prisons”. The report examined how the violent and non-violent elements of extremism can be imposed on vulnerable offenders. British prisons have a long history and threatening future of coping with terrorists and religious extremists. The aftermath of 9/11 saw an increase in extremism motivated by Islamist ideology. Anti-terrorism legislation passed in the aftermath of 7/7 criminalised those who “glorified” terrorism, those involved in acts preparatory to terrorism and those who advocated it without being directly involved. This increase in legislative scope was matched by an upsurge in global jihadist terror violence. Both Muslim and non-Muslim prisoners serving sentences for crimes unrelated to terrorism are targets for radicalisation by Islamist extremists. Statistics show an increasing and disproportionate representation of Muslims within the criminal justice system, which could chime with the radicalisers’ message of the victimisation of Muslims.
Current trends suggest that the number of prisoners guilty of offences relating to terrorism and extremism are likely to grow. It has been reported that at least 800 Britons have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight; many have returned to the UK, of whom a percentage will enter the criminal justice system.
The review found the threat from Islamic extremism manifested in prison in various ways, including: a) Muslim gang culture and the consequent violence, drug trafficking and criminality inspired or directed by these groups; b) offenders advocating support for Daesh (ISIS) and threats against staff and other prisoners; c) charismatic Islamist extremist prisoners acting as self-styled “emirs” and exerting a controlling and radicalising influence on the wider Muslim prison population; d) aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam; e) unsupervised collective worship, sometimes at Friday prayers including pressure on supervising staff to leave the prayer room; f) attempts by Islamist extremist prisoners to engineer segregation by landing, by wing, or even by prison; g) attempts to prevent staff searches by claiming dress is religious; h) books and educational materials promoting extremist literature available in chaplaincy libraries or held by individual prisoners; i) intimidation of prison imams; j) exploitation of staff fear of being labelled racist.
The review noted there are around 69 full-time, 65 part-time and 110 sessional Muslim prison chaplains. About two thirds follow the Deobandi denomination, often regarded as a traditional and conservative interpretation. The review concluded that while most chaplains did good and useful work, there was evidence of a weak understanding and effective approach to Islamist extremism, such as lack of hard data on conversions and the reasons behind them and a lack of management control over access to extremist literature and materials. The review further noted that “Deobandism” being the “default” version of Islam in prisons, could be problematic if non-Deobandi chaplains and prisoners feel marginalised.
The review recommended improved scrutiny, vetting, clearance arrangements for chaplains, given their access to prisoners, also to make prison governors more accountable and responsible for peaceful faith and worship in their prisons, ensuring the appropriate content of sermons. There is a need to reduce the threat Islamist extremist offenders pose to others. The policy of dispersal has not been developed in response to the emerging the threat.
On the same day as the Acheson review was published, the government’s Secretary of State for Justice, Elizabeth Truss, set out new measures to tackle extremism in prisons, introducing a new directorate for security, order and counter-terrorism that will be created to be responsible for monitoring and dealing with the evolving threat. Prison governors have been instructed to ban extremist literature and to remove anyone from Friday prayers who is promoting anti-British beliefs or dangerous views. Most significantly, the most dangerous Islamist extremists will be removed from the general prison population and held in “specialist units” in the high security estate. It is more than likely that Anjem Choudary can look forward to ten years in isolation.