Will isolating Islamic extremists in UK prisons stop radicalisation?

The risk of creating a British Guantanamo

Photo of Jose Padilla in New York Times, Dec 2006. Source: Wikipedia

Photo of Jose Padilla in New York Times, Dec 2006. Source: Wikipedia


The British tabloid press has recently been alive with headlines of self-styled emirs, hate-preaching imams and jihadi books in prisons. Their ire only increased when radical preacher Anjem Choudary was  convicted of swearing allegiance to Islamic State.

The government has responded by announcing a new strategy whereby the most dangerous extremists are to be isolated within high-security “prisons within prisons” to stop them from radicalising others. 

But will the strategy work? Or has it been tried before and proved ineffective? Could it even be a propaganda coup for extremist recruiters? 


The old and new system for most dangerous prisoners 

For the past 50 years, the most hard-core prisoners have been dispersed within the prison system to prevent them from establishing close relationships with other inmates.

They are regularly transferred between six maximum security jails to decrease the likelihood of radicalisation.

But Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who conducted a review of the system under former Justice Secretary Michael Gove, said Muslim gangs and self-styled “emirs” were actively radicalising other prisoners and needed to be isolated. 

He told a parliamentary select committee hearing in July:

“There are a small number of people whose behaviour is so egregious in relation to proselytising this pernicious [Islamist] ideology…that they need to be completely incapacitated from being able to proselytise to the rest of the prison population.” 

The government accepted his recommendation for isolation units. The new specialist units are expected to be built in up to eight high secure prisons in the UK. Each is expected to hold under 50 inmates, but extremists will not be isolated from each other.




A new Ministry of Justice directorate of Security, Order and Counter-Terrorism has been set up to ensure that the most dangerous Islamist extremists don’t create their own operational command structures, as happened with the IRA in Northern Ireland. 

But the government appears to have fudged the situation by later saying that a new “ghost train” system is to be established to move the most troublesome Islamic extremist inmates between isolation units. So it appears to be a mix of old and new. 

Similar isolation systems have been tried in the Netherlands, France and Spain. More on that later, but first a brief look at the scale of the problem.


The scale of extremism in prisons 

Of the roughly 13,000 Muslim inmates in British jails, there are currently around 130 convicted Islamist terrorists

The government’s Counter-Extremism Strategy, which was published in October 2015, said there were approximately 1,000 prisoners whose behaviour in custody raised concerns about extremism.  

Here is a breakdown of terrorism related offences from a parliamentary report on radicalisation in April 2016.


Source: Radicalisation in prisons in England & Wales - House of Commons Briefing Paper - 14 April 2016

Source: Radicalisation in prisons in England & Wales – House of Commons Briefing Paper – 14 April 2016


For a further breakdown of the figures above, see here.


Does isolating extremists in prison work?  

Justice Secretary Liz Truss accepted there was a “risk” extremists could become more influential when kept together. But she insisted that the lessons of the Maze and Maghaberry prisons in Northern Ireland, which became hothouses for IRA terrorists, had been learnt.


Justice Secretary Lizz Truss. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Mr Acheson said a sophisticated approach would be taken in which each prisoner had an individual deradicalisation programme. He said that if the units were only punitive, they would fail:

“It is not about prisons for Muslims or prisons for terrorists. It is a nuanced response that holds out the possibility of redemption.”

In 2012, Maajid Nawaz, founding chairman of the Quilliam Foundation said British prisons had already become “forcing houses of Islamist extremism” 


The risk of creating a British Guantanamo  

Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers Association, warned that specialist isolation units could turn into a British Guantanamo Bay that gives inmates “credibility and status”. He told Sky News:

“You politicise them, you give them credibility and before you know it you have got a British Guantanamo Bay. We are a big enough country to have a proper dispersal system and not give these individuals the credibility and the profile that no doubt they will probably be doing things to get into these units”  

Professor Peter Neumann, a counter-extremism expert, said: “With large numbers of ‘lone operators’ who may not be particularly ideological and who have failed to join the command and control structures of groups like Isis, the risk of them connecting with ideological and operational leaders while imprisoned is real. In other words, a policy of concentration may inadvertently help to create the kind of hierarchical organisation that the terrorists found it impossible to create outside.” 


De Schie prison in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Commons

De Schie prison in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Source: Wikimedia Commons


How have isolation units worked elsewhere?  

Lord Falconer, the former Shadow Lord Chancellor, said that a similar system had been tried in France and had not been a success. He argued that the present “dispersal over seven or eight high-security prisons” is a better option.

In the Netherlands, many see prison isolation units as the least worst option. The BBC visited the De Schie prison in Rotterdam.

Lawyer Andre Seebregts says the “severe” regime at the Dutch prison, including frequent strip searching of inmates and intense surveillance, is counter-productive.

“I have eight to 10 clients who have spent time in these wings, and I distinctly have the impression that they become more and more negative towards the Dutch authorities, and they feed off each other”


What do the academics have to say? 

A study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London in 2010 examined the evidence from 15 countries about how people could be radicalised or reformed in prison.  

The report found that the link between radicalisation and prisons was difficult to prove. It said that it was unclear whether deradicalisation programmes could help stop terrorism, but that there was some evidence to suggest that, in the right circumstances, they might.




It also found that overcrowding and under-staffing – both big problems in British prisons following austerity cuts – could exacerbate the problem. It said that the emphasis on “security first” had meant missed opportunities to promote reform.

Chris Phillips, former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, recently warned that staff shortages are making it harder to tackle Islamic radicalisation in England’s prisons. He said shortages meant extremists were not properly monitored, enabling them to recruit others. A parliamentary report has said jail safety was compromised by staff cuts. 


What about radicalisation in lower security prisons? 

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust,  said the special units could be effective if they were used as a short term measure with a focus on rehabilitating segregated inmates “to change the way they behave and think”.

But he warned the strategy only dealt with “half of the problem”, as the Acheson report raised serious concerns about radicalisation in lower-security prisons, which had been “hardest hit” by staff cuts in recent years. 


What does it cost to keep extremists in isolation? 

And finally, there are the quite significant costs. The enhanced security means that it costs almost £60,000 a year to hold a Category A prisoner, twice the cost of holding Category B and Category C prisoners. 


Please let us know what you think in the comments below. 

2 Comments on “Will isolating Islamic extremists in UK prisons stop radicalisation?”

  1. Norman Franklin says:

    Those who are preaching or disseminating propaganda are political prisoners. and either they should be offered deportation, or treated with courtesy and respect. A mentor for each would help them to see how to behave. The Government have no idea on how to de-radicalise.
    The idea that people who have returned from Syria and are disillusioned with ISIS mst be punished is counter-productive. These people should be encouraged to preach their message of disillusion


  2. Michelle Butler says:

    Concerns about Islamist extremists forming command structures or becoming more influential when grouped together are not the only lessons that needed to be learned from the Northern Ireland experience (see https://theconversation.com/lessons-from-northern-ireland-dont-put-islamist-extremists-in-special-prison-units-65529). A “ghost train” is not going to solve these problems and it doesn’t even begin to tackle the other problems.


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