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Islamic extremism in jails 'potentially lethal'

Published 13/07/2016

The inquiry concluded that the National Offender Management Service lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the emerging threat
The inquiry concluded that the National Offender Management Service lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the emerging threat

Islamist extremism is a growing and potentially lethal problem in prisons, a Government-ordered inquiry has warned.

It called for the introduction of new units in order to isolate a small number of inmates from the rest of the population in response to the problem.

MPs were told the review - which has not yet been published - found staff lacked t he confidence and training to confront and deter Islamist extremist ideology on the landings, and were often fearful they would be accused of racism if they did.

There were numerous examples of literature of an extremist nature in chaplaincies, while the recruitment, training and supervision of prison imams was "seriously deficient".

The National Offender Management Service (Noms) - the organisation tasked with dealing with the issue - lacked a coherent strategy to deal with the emerging threat, the Commons Justice committee heard.

Ian Acheson, a former prison governor who was asked to lead a review of radicalisation in jails last year, spoke of an "i nstitutional timidity" in confronting the problem as he delivered a stark and at times highly critical assessment.

Outlining his findings for the first time, he said there was a "very poor understanding of risk" and "inadequate management of intelligence" relating to Islamist extremism.

The review found that the "extremism unit" at Noms "lacked an actual strategy to deal with extremism".

Mr Acheson said: "It seemed more concerned with briefing and collating information than providing robust operational support to the front line."

Training in relation to Islamist extremism talked about al Qaida but there was no mention of Isis - also known as Islamic State or Daesh, the committee was told.

Describing an example of a "level of complacency" he had observed during the inquiry, Mr Acheson said: "I remember having a discussion with a senior director at Noms who told me, quite blithely, that the service had made no provision at all to forecast the return of jihadi fighters from Afghanistan or Isis-controlled territory or anywhere else, because the service was, frankly, big enough to absorb that.

"I found that quite astonishing."

At a small number of prisons, particularly outside the high-security estate, the phenomenon was "quite serious" and "not being dealt with or controlled properly despite the best efforts of the operational staff on the front line".

Mr Acheson said he believed that, with "sufficient political input", Noms will "get on top of this problem".

He went on: "The problem is serious but it is not out of control."

One of the key recommendations was the creation of units for a small number of prisoners to stop them being able to "proselytise" to other inmates.

Mr Acheson said there is intelligence to say there are a small number of people "whose behaviour is so egregious in relation to proselytising this pernicious ideology, this lethal, nihilistic death cult ideology, which gets magnified inside prison".

He said: " There is, we believe, justification for saying for those small number of people they need to be completely incapacitated from being able to proselytise to the rest of the prison population."

Describing a possible model, he said: "These people are placed in units. These units are not in any way punitive, but they are completely physically isolated from the rest of the prison grounds."

The units would not have a special name and would probably be newly-built in the existing high-security estate.

Mr Acheson said it is "not a place where they (prisoners) will stay", and the approach aimed to provide an " individualised response and programme to reduce the dangerousness of these people".

He stressed it was "emphatically not about prisons for Muslims or prisons for terrorists", adding: "It is a very nuanced response to a very serious problem."

Justice Secretary Michael Gove told the committee he was "very sympathetic" to the review's recommendations, adding: "It's vitally important that I give whoever is the new Home Secretary an opportunity to ensure that he or she is happy with our recommendations as well."

Shadow prisons minister Jo Stevens said: "Evidence of complacency and a complete absence of thinking about key issues such as jihadi fighters returning from the Middle East is astonishing.

"There has been widespread concern about radicalisation in our prisons and with overcrowding and violence at record levels, the likelihood of increasing violence is obvious."

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