The Ministry of Justice has announced that purpose-built blocks are to open within high-security jails around the country to hold the most dangerous “Islamist extremist” prisoners away from other inmates.
The blocks will have their own facilities and will be able to hold up to 28 people. The first unit will open this summer at Frankland Prison, County Durham, with two more to follow at other jails.
Ministers said last year that they wanted to isolate extremist inmates who “seek to poison the minds of others.” Prisoners who are deemed to be a risk to national security or to be involved in planning terrorism will be among those held in the blocks.
Last August a recommendation from a report into radicalisation in English and Welsh prisons found evidence of inmates advocating support for ISIS.
Ministers have already launched a team of 100 counter-terrorism experts to tackle extremism within jails. Other measures included the removal of so-called extremist books from prison libraries and stronger vetting of prison chaplains.
Prisons minister Sam Gyimah said: “Any form of extremism must be defeated wherever it is found, and it is right that we separate those who pose the greatest risk in order to limit their influence over other prisoners. These centres are a crucial part of our wider strategy to help tackle extremism in prisons and ensure the safety and security of both our prisons and the wider public.”
However, Cerie Bullivant from CAGE expressed doubt over whether the plans would succeed.
He said: “This isn’t the first time this has been tried. It happened with the Irish (IRA inmates) and was considered an abject failure and has been happening with a Muslim-only unit in HMS Long Lartin for many years. These approaches are counter-productive and only act to otherise and single Muslims out.”
The number of Muslims in prison in England and Wales has more than doubled in the past 12 years to just over 12,000 in December 2015 (about 14% of the prison population). Only 130 Muslim prisoners – just over 1% of the total – are convicted terrorists.
But despite the warnings about “Islamist extremism” in prisons, last year research found no evidence to support this and warned that a preoccupation with radicalisation is warping perceptions of prisoners’ behaviour and relationships.
Ryan Williams, of Cambridge University’s prison research centre, who has examined the role of Islam in three UK maximum security prisons, said concerns about radicalisation often reflect a failure to understand prison culture and its impact on inmates’ behaviour.
In a draft paper he wrote that there is a muddling of “issues around extremism, religious identity, and the specific conditions that bring about certain interpretations and enactments of Islam. Within prisons, everyday Muslim practices of praying, reading the Quran, or even reading commentary from Muslim scholars about God’s creation and evolutionary theory can raise concerns over extremism.”
The findings reflect research by Maslaha, a social enterprise that works to improve conditions in Muslim communities in the UK and internationally and the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, which looked at the experiences of young Muslim men incarcerated in lower category prisons and young offender institutions in England. A group of Muslim ex-offenders from Leicester in their early 20s interviewed for the report, Young Muslims on Trial, published in March 2016, said their friendships and the everyday practice of their faith were misinterpreted negatively.