When compared with our bloated and overcrowded prison system, the actual numbers involved look relatively small. We currently have around 85,100 people in custody in prisons England and Wales. Of these, only 137 are Muslims convicted of terrorism-related offences. However, those who identify as Muslims within our jails number around 12,600 and the overwhelming majority are either serving time for a very wide variety of criminal offences other than terrorism or are being held on remand.
|Sir Humphrey... a Civil Service master|
During my own time inside between 2012 and 2014 I was very much aware of just how little most prison staff were aware of what was going on under their noses when it came to radicalisation (and this applied not just to Islamist extremists, but far right groups too). However, even when it was clear that some pretty severe bullying and aggressive proselytisation was going on across the wings, many staff members seemed at a loss what to do about it. I sensed an all-pervasive fear of getting involved with anything that might be interpreted as interference with, or obstruction of, religious practices or even racism.
|Might be useful for staff|
I also met other prisoners who had fallen foul of radical gangs in different prisons and, rather than break up the tight cliques that effectively took control of spurs (small corridors) or even entire wings, governors and custodial managers appeared more willing to transfer the non-Muslim prisoner to another establishment rather than actually challenge dominant groups controlling large swathes of territory in the prisons under their charge. I certainly gained the impression that as long as radical gangs were not openly disrupting the daily regime or engaging in open violence, especially against staff, there was a tacit approach of leaving well alone.
Perhaps a major part of that was due to the current policies that deal with equality and non-discrimination in our prisons. As a peer mentor I worked closely with other inmates who were equality and diversity reps and it seemed that rank and file officers were often unwilling to challenge Muslim radicals (or some other very visible groups that had the advantage of numbers on the wings) because of a fear that they might face formal accusations or complaints of harassment or racial discrimination. Even if entirely unjustified, such allegations can be both stressful and time-consuming to contest via internal prison channels.
|Distinctive Muslim dress in prison|
There is no doubt in my own mind that in quite a few cases inmates were manipulating and even intimidating wing staff who actually had no idea whether what they were being told was true. A few did refer issues to the part-time Muslim chaplain, but to be honest this involved yet more bureaucracy and paperwork, by which stage the original issue was often long forgotten. It was easier to give the benefit of the doubt when it came to unfamiliar religious issues or demands.
However, beyond these more practical questions, there was a wider concern over what these tightly-knit groups or gangs were discussing behind closed cell doors or in informal meetings outside of formal organised prayers led by Muslim chaplains. Where there was a critical mass of prisoners from specific countries or regions, language could be used as a badge of separation. I was in one Cat-B prison where perhaps 12 or 14 prisoners regularly communicated among themselves in various dialects of Arabic, completely unintelligible to those who didn’t speak the language, including other inmates and the entire wing staff.
|Instrumental music is banned|
In one prison, Muslim prisoners sought to take control of specific corridors (including the small wing kitchens and shower blocks) in order to bar entry to non-Muslims. This was justified by reference to the need to keep kitchen equipment ‘uncontaminated’ and suitable for the preparation of halal food. By excluding non-believers from the shower blocks, standards of Islamic ‘modesty’ could be imposed. This level of segregation was entirely self-imposed by members of the group.
|Drugs found in prisons|
There is also a very real risk of individual members of prison staff – uniformed and civilian – being threatened, intimidated or drawn into compromising situations by well-organised gangs of extremists. This is a specific security problem that is rarely mentioned or acknowledged, but given the recent number of prison staff convicted of misconduct (a total of 10 in the past 14 weeks, usually for smuggling contraband) it cannot be ignored. I attribute the easy availability of prohibited mobile phones and SIM cards in most of our prisons to porous security, too often aided and abetted by corrupt members of the prison staff, both uniformed and civilian, who supply smuggled items in return for cash payments outside the prison walls.
So will the latest proposals being brought forward by Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, address the threats posed by radical leaders – so-called ‘emirs’ – in our prisons? At one level, containment of the problem is probably the best that can be achieved. By introducing small, specialist units that isolate known or suspected radical leaders and recruiters their direct influence on wings may be reduced, if not entirely eliminated. By creating a number of such units in high security prisons, it may also allow governors to move such inmates around the estate regularly, thus disrupting groups of prisoners that they may create or lead.
|Separation in special units|
Imprisonment, particularly in harsh conditions, is very unlikely to persuade radicalised inmates to abandon their views and come to love the British state and its institutions. Our prisons have been dubbed ‘hate factories’ for a very good reason. Almost all of these individuals will eventually be released back into the community and many will emerge even more radicalised and filled with hatred for ‘the system’ than they were when they were sent down.
Claimed solutions – such as offending behaviour courses or even radical ‘deprogramming’ – are very unlikely to work with most extremists of whatever persuasion. In any case, these interventions are very costly and require levels of specialist staff that HM Prison Service simply doesn’t have. Given its past track record of failure, I think it is very unlikely that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) will be able to resolve a crisis situation that it has allowed to develop and fester across our prison system for many years.
|The MOJ: too little, too late?|
So how will Mr Choudary fare inside the slammer? Having already firmly established his persona as a leading ‘public enemy’ via the ever-helpful British media, the likelihood is that he has already settled into his new role as an Islamist ‘martyr’, oppressed by the infidel, godless UK state he claims to loathe so much. This is his golden opportunity to fight his own personal jihad from the relative comfort of a prison cell. Even in the comparative isolation of one of Ms Truss’s specialist segregation units he will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to take the leadership his tiny flock of like-minded individuals, spreading hated and mistrust as he goes round the prison system.
As a well-educated and articulate former solicitor he will almost certainly become one of the best prison cell lawyers and then run rings round the prison authorities, while causing the unfortunate governors and managers no end of time-consuming trouble and voluminous paperwork. I’d also be amazed if he doesn’t take the government to court sooner to later over the restrictive conditions in which he will be held. And, above all, he will no doubt find a way of smuggling out his sermons and fatwas as a rallying call to his remaining supporters outside the prison walls. If anyone thinks they have heard the last of Mr Choudary and his dangerous ideology, I fear they will be very much mistaken.