This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Toward the end of last month, extremist Tanveer Ahmed managed to release a promotional video for violent jihad from behind bars, thrusting the corrosive influence of radicals in Britain's prisons once again to the forefront of public consciousness.
The powers that be might not be able to get a grip on hate spread via the internet, but they are taking steps to try to prevent other inmates from being radicalized. Last month, it was revealed that the UK's most dangerous convicted extremists will soon be kept in special high-security units reserved for extremists. The logic behind this is that isolating them from the general prison population will help to prevent them from spreading their ideologies to other inmates.
The move has provoked mixed reactions, with some believing it's a necessary precaution, and others holding the view that there's no point trying to insulate people from corrupting influences in prison, because you know… it's prison! Critics of the plan have also pointed out that when different wings were allocated to paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, terrorist inmates then just organized along military lines, running their respective units.
At the height of the Troubles there were numerous hostage-taking situations in Northern Irish prisons, and wings would frequently descend into chaos. The fact that all of the inmates on the units shared a common cause and identity meant that they were far better organized and more dangerous than your regular common or garden criminals. Prisons were ransacked, officers were killed, and staff were bullied into making concessions for inmates. The situation became so bad that guards were instructed not to confront prisoners. Former IRA member Shane O'Doherty is all too familiar with the dangers of such wings, having spent time on one while serving a sentence for terrorist offenses.
"The segregated area of the prison can quickly become effectively a no-go area for the prison authorities at times when these prisoners are out of their cells and associating," he told me. "It allows for regular barricading of the interface between the segregated area and the rest of the prison, and for protracted negotiations and even hostage situations involving prison guards."
Religious extremism expert Syed Zaidi believes that the lack of dissenting perspectives in such wings also reinforces radicals' existing stances. According to him, extremists need to be engaged in organic dialogue so that they interact with contesting world views and see things differently. He also believes that seeing the potential for decency and dignity in every human being should be the foundation for challenging extremism.
The notion that even the most hardened of radicals is capable of change appears to be conspicuously absent from discussion of the segregated wings. All of the information that has been released about them so far indicates that the main emphasis will be on preventing the spread of extremism rather than rehabilitating those who have already been radicalized.
I spoke to Chris Menton, a professor of criminal justicewho has studied the effects of prison facilities centered on specific crimes, to find out if giving extremists their own wing would likely help or hinder rehabilitative efforts.
He pointed out that housing perpetrators of similar offenses together can be useful for facilitating courses aimed at altering their behavior and patterns of thinking. This suggests that segregating radicals could be a viable strategy, providing that the main emphasis is placed on changing their perspectives rather than merely isolating them. Menton did, however, question whether or not methods that are used in facilities reserved exclusively for crimes like sex offenses and domestic abuse could be applied to hardened radicals. "With zealots," he said, "it's hard to say if the mental capsule can be cracked."
A terrorist-only prison wing aimed at enabling rehabilitative courses for extremists has already been set up in Nigeria's Kuje Prison. A study of its effectiveness concluded that it appears to be successful, although it hasn't been running long enough to draw any concrete conclusions. There have been reports of participants in the courses crying and proclaiming that they have been wasting their lives—but whether or not this was just a means of ingratiating themselves with the prison staff remains to be seen.
Rather than going to the drastic length of establishing special terrorist-only prisons, which may or may not make a situation worse, you could argue there are additional steps that could be taken to ensure extremists aren't capable of converting inmates on regular prison wings. Extremism and counter-terrorism expert Imran Awan claims that overcrowding is acting as a barrier to preventing radicalization. "Any measures to tackle radicalization within prisons must start by addressing the issues of overcrowding and understaffing," he said, "which lead to a potential risk of prison staff being under-resourced and not well trained in understanding the issues around faith, radicalization, and integration."
Sixty percent of prisons in the UK are currently overcrowded, and the number of people behind bars is still increasing. Prison staff numbers have been reduced by a third since May of 2015, and earlier this year, the Prison Officers Association warned that funding cuts are placing vulnerable prisoners at risk. So it's unlikely that staff are finding time to keep an eye out for signs of extremists indoctrinating other inmates, what with them already being pushed to the limit as it is.
All things considered, there seems to be a high potential for things to go wrong with extremist-only prison wings. If managed badly, they could pose additional safety risks to staff, become universities for terrorism, and be viewed as safe havens by vulnerable prisoners and those wanting an easy ride. There's also the issue of whether the danger of an extremist radicalizing others is really a greater threat than that of a heroin dealer recruiting runners, or a gang prospecting for new members. When it comes down to it, drugs and violent criminals kill more people in the UK than terrorists each year.
That said, the devil is in the detail. If accompanied by preventative measures within the general prison population, effective rehabilitative courses and engagement with the wider Islamic community, it's possible that such wings might prove successful. Whether or not this will be the case remains to be seen. They might make our prisons a place in which radicals can no longer exert control over impressionable minds, but then again, they might exacerbate the very problems they were put there to solve.
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