British Prisons and terrorism: the foretold failure


A few days ago, the head of MI5 Jonathan Evans has undertaken the unusual step of revealing, among other aspects linked to the security of the UK, his own concerns that a number of soon-to-be-freed inmates are still ‘committed extremists and likely to return to terrorist activities.’ As an anthropologist who has conducted one of the most in-depth research projects on Muslims in prison in the UK, his quite alarmist announcement did not take me by surprise. I am pretty sure that Mr Evans has every right to be concerned. Yet the British public needs to also know why today we find ourselves in such situation and where the political responsibility lies.

I have extensively explained the dynamics of radicalisation, together with the condition of Muslim inmates in some of Her Majesty’s prisons, in my book Faith, Ideology and Fear, so I will not revisit the main points here, but rather I will try to explain the main weakness of the system that has forced the Head of MI5 to make such a surprising statement.

The reasons behind the current reality are of two kinds: on the one hand, there has been a total lack of real strategy, beyond the immediate repression, security and mass media concerns; on the other, a total disregard for alternative solutions and careful planning for the future of the prisoner. The former Labour government was more interested in showing success in the conviction of suspected terrorists (particularly when charged for Internet related activities) than considering what to do with these, often in reality low-risk, or  in some cases even unjustly convicted, prisoners.
Rehabilitation is not the main priority of the British prison system. However, during my research, in the case of prisoners convicted of terrorist offences, it was not even taken into consideration. Rather, intense surveillance, sometimes to the limit of removing the prisoner’s human rights, and in some prisons, abuse by the other inmates (and in some cases prison officers) were often the norm rather than the exception.

Although some governors and prison institutions tried their best, the lack of real support by the former government to provide for both rehabilitation and post-prison reintegration made any attempt to move from an arid prison security mentality difficult and frustrating. As a governor told me, during an interview, ‘if you apply for money for security related programs, it will be granted. But for other programs, it is difficult and should be linked to some aspects of surveillance and security in order to have any chance.’
The former government, as I explain in my book, made an enormous effort to show that radicalisation within prisons was controlled and the mass media reports of Muslim radicalisation behind bars were addressed. Yet it did not care about the future of prisoners or about the issues less covered by the media, such as re-integration.

The reality is that in some cases those convicted for very small terrorist offences (i.e. less than 10 years) have suffered perceived or real injustices within the prison environment. Furthermore, they have not had structured help to reflect on their own actions, they have been provided very little religious support and they leave prison unequipped with the ability to develop new networks of friends, so to avoid the old ones upon release.

Yet the most serious issue is that they have not been helped in overcoming the dualistic and confrontational worldview that landed them in prison in the first place. Quite the opposite, the surveillance culture and the continuous reference to them as ‘terrorists’ may, in some cases, have reenforced it.
At the end of my research, I called publicly–more than once–to consider the time of release for these prisoners with a view to developing the necessary structures and support for them, since surveillance and repression may only push the most vulnerable to more extreme acts, among which suicide, which in this case may have terrorist connotations. I wrote a book on the topic and presented the situation in public speeches; yet at that time, as today, there were no ears ready to listen.

I hope that the new government will take steps in the right direction and use the available research and human resources while distancing itself from the populistic and media centric approach of the former government.

Yet if something will happen in future, you can still try to attend one of Tony Blair’s lectures on Religion at Yale, and ask him, now an academic showman, the reasons behind such an emblematic failure in the management of one of the most important aspects for the internal security of the country.

4 thoughts on “British Prisons and terrorism: the foretold failure

  1. Pingback: Pickled Politics » Releasing extremists

  2. ‘Furthermore, they have not had structured help to reflect on their own actions, they have been provided very little religious support and they leave prison unequipped with the ability to develop new networks of friends, so to avoid the old ones upon release.’

    That is true I’m sure of a great deal of other non-terrorist prisoners. I don’t have an answer Prof, but I’m certain that the answer will not be cheap. I.e. Keep them in prison or provide additional support to those convicted of terror offences that are not available to ‘ordinary’ criminals. If we treat terrorism as crime though why should some criminals get more resources than others?

    Either way I’m convinced the UK will maintain the high-surveillance approach in spite of your concerns, its virtually an entire industry in any case and imagine the bleating if some individual is not observed yet goes on to commit more terrorism

  3. Pingback: British Prisons and terrorism: the foretold failure « counterideology 2

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