The Threat from Within: Are UK Prisons Warehouses for Radicalisation?

Why Longer Sentences for Terrorist Offences Might not be the Answer

Following two stabbing attacks in London in just over two months carried out by convicts who had been let out of jail early, the question is being raised again of how to make prison more effective in dealing with this type of offender. In the latest attack on Sunday, 20-year old Sudesh Amman carried out his knife attack on a busy London street one week after being been released from jail after having served half of his three-year sentence for “possession of terrorist documents and disseminating terrorist publication.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced Monday that it is moving to curtail early release for those jailed for terrorism-related offenses, including acts that stop short of violence. This sounds like a promising move, but taken against the backdrop of the two latest attacks where it appears that the terrorist’s extremism might well have been intensified while in prison, the measures appear illogical. No matter when an individual is released, and with the exception of a limited number of the most serious cases such as the killer of soldier Lee Rigby, they are all going to be released sooner or later. Many in Britain are arguing that it is time for the government to put more time, energy and resources into what happens inside prison and are questioning whether deradialisation programs meant to steer terrorists away from violent ideology and help them reintegrate into society actually work.
Currently, a prisoner serving a determinate sentence is normally released automatically halfway through their sentence. If their sentence is longer than one year, they would be released on probation. Proponents of early release for such convicts say jailhouse experience sometimes heighten the likelihood they will go on to carry out an attack. Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor in the north-west, said without an effective rehabilitation process, delaying release of a prisoner is just delaying an inevitable attack.

“Yes, a longer sentence, we could have delayed this inevitable crime by a few months, if we’d given him that,” “he told BBC Radio 4. “But there is a real problem with de-radicalisation and disengagement programmes. They have been largely underfunded. They are poorly executed. This is all down to the impact of austerity on the probation service.”

He added: “There’s no formal mechanism to risk assess them, they will commit this crime unless there something is done about this in the prison. Yes, longer sentences will have an impact but it just delays the inevitable.”

There are around 220 prisoners currently serving time for terrorism offences in England and Wales. About 245 were freed from jail between 2012 and 2019.  The "vast majority", 77 per cent (173), were branded as holding Islamist-extremist views, according to Home Office data. A programme called Healthy Identities Intervention (HII) is the UK’s main in-prison scheme to challenge the thinking of terrorism offenders. It aims to get offenders to think carefully, often over a very long series of counselling sessions, why they chose to turn to violence. They are asked whether the violence, or support of it, defines their identity. In some cases, an offender may turn away from violence quickly. But it is often more difficult when prisoners who have spent years in jail. In the case of those aligned with jihadist organisations, prison service imams also get involved in religious counselling sessions. These have been criticized for using chaplains without the detailed knowledge of jihadist ideology required to break down extremist beliefs.

Usman Khan had completed the UK’s principle de-radicalsion scheme when he launched his attack in December killing two and injuring three others in London Bridge. He had even been used by Cambridge University as a case study of success. Following the attack, the creator of the 10-year-old scheme, forensic psychologist Chris Dean, told the BBC there is no certainty that all terrorism offenders can be reformed. The success rate of HII is unknown as the programme has never been independently evaluated. One reason is it would be unethical to carry out a scientific trial in which some offenders are released without receiving therapy, just to see if they were most likely to reoffend.

In an effort to tackle ‘jail jihadism’, authorities have also adopted a policy of segregation. So-called ‘prisons-within-prisons’ look to isolate the most influential extremists from those at risk of radicalisation—but critics say the programme is flawed. Rather than diminish extremism, experts warn that confinement of the most ardent inmates entrenches their ideology. Likewise, the policy risks alienating less radical terror offenders, forcing them away from the mainstream and towards militancy. 

The Ministry of Justice insists there is no evidence of large-scale radicalisation in prisons but there were considerable risks behind bars where terrorists and vulnerable people mix. But Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has described UK prisons as “warehouses” for radicalisation and called upon the government to give jails resources and support to properly punish and reform those convicted of a serious offence as well as handing judges the power to pass sentences which would help keep dangerous terrorists behind bars.

Might lessons be learned from Saudi Arabia? Former Prisons Minister and current independent candidate for Mayor of London Rory Stewart told the LBC radio station that Saudi Arabia had done “very good programmes on de-radicalisation”. The kingdom claims to have had the most success, targeting 3,000 inmates since 2005. The authorities there claim an 80% success rate– with the remaining 20% returning to violence. The offenders go through a number of stages: counselling in prison before entering a specialist rehabilitation facility, intensive cognitive behavior programmes – aimed at the way they think and respond to situations, introduction to wider range of art, sporting and religious activities to help them return to normal life and society and “after care” once they are back in society.

But with prison deradicalisation teams complaining of underfunding and under resourcing, the money required to sustain such a holistic programme seems sparse. Furthermore, the government appears to be more concerned about meeting immediate public safety concerns. That means keeping dangerous person imprisoned for longer.