A former prison governor who led an official review into Islamist extremism in prisons has said jails in the UK have become “incubators” of radical behaviour, and repeated calls for the most subversive offenders to be separated from other inmates.
Ian Acheson, who led the independent government review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation in 2016, said the high number of lower-tariff extremist offenders entering squalid, overcrowded jails, combined with a low chance of them receiving treatment for their behaviour, were behind the worsening problem.
He called for the “enlightened separation of extremist ideologues” in prison, but acknowledged it was a “controversial” recommendation.
Acheson, writing in an essay published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said: “In 2018, 41% of convictions for terrorism-related offences were of sentences of four years or less. In particular, these lower-tariff prisoners enter a penal system severely disordered by overcrowding, squalor and insufficient staff.
“The prospect of them receiving treatment for their offending behaviour in this environment pales beside the pragmatic attraction of safety in religious or ideological groups that provide security, kudos and structure.
“In this respect, prisons in the UK, in particular in England and Wales, have become incubators of extremism.
“Policymakers can and must at least remove those most able to capitalise on this chaos by spreading the message of violent extremism. Individuals who pose a threat must not be allowed to weaponise the grievances of those in search of meaning and excitement.”
Acheson’s review concluded the threat posed by ideologues with relatively free access in prison to radicalise the next generation of offenders was so great that only incapacitating them would work.
“Enlightened separation of extremist ideologues in prison and community-based reintegration of offenders on release are new, more agile ways of dealing with this threat,” he said.
“We cannot speak to dead terrorists. We can speak for dead victims. They demand that policymakers take risks to ensure that the people who wish to harm us through a corrupt ideology are engaged, not shunned.
“This should happen not because states are weak, but because they are confident the strength of their values will ultimately prevail.”
The number of extremist prisoners is relatively low compared with the wider prison population, but Acheson argued their impact was potentially lethal.
The Ministry of Justice previously said it believed about 700 prisoners were a risk due to their extremist views. It is understood the figure was an overall estimate of all inmates linked to any form of extremism, including Islamist or far-right ideologies.
As of 30 September 2018, there were 224 people in custody in Britain for terrorism-related offences, an increase of 5% on the previous year.
Acheson said: “While the numbers of convicted terrorists remain relatively small in a prison population of around 83,000, the lethal risk radicalised prisoners represent to national security in and outside prisons means policymakers cannot be complacent.”
Police and security services have been dealing with a surge in the number of convicted terrorists released from prison. More than 40% of the sentences for terrorism offences over a 10-year period would have been served by the end of 2018, Guardian analysis showed. More than 80 of the 193 sentences for terrorism offences between 2007 and 2016 will have run out by the end of this year.
The former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, in the foreword to the collection of essays from Acheson and seven other experts on counter-extremism, said: “Extremism based on a perversion of the religion of Islam – the turning of religious belief into a totalitarian political ideology – remains the most potent global security threat.
“Security measures are of course necessary. They are also costly. Countries spend billions of dollars to protect themselves against terrorist acts.
“But such measures can only ever contain the problem. To eliminate it, we must eliminate the thinking which draws people to the misguided, dangerous mindset that in carrying out these horrific actions, they’re somehow carrying out the will of God.”