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MoJ releases ‘summary findings’ of prison ‘radicalisation’ report

MoJ releases ‘summary findings’ of prison ‘radicalisation’ report

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday August 23 2016

After much trailing of the report on ‘prison radicalisation’ the Ministry of Justice yesterday published an 18 page summary of the ‘main findings of the review of Islamist extremism in prisons, probation and youth justice’ but not the full report.

The summary alludes to the preparation of a “detailed report” to the Secretary of State for Justice on 17 March 2016. Alas, the details are not disclosed for public scrutiny because, according to the summary, the “implications for public safety and security, the review is in the form of a classified report to the then Secretary of State.”

The summary refers to the review being led by Ian Acheson and “supported by external expertise” although there is no disclosure to what or whom this “external support” consists of. The summary also states the purpose of the review as “inform[ing] future policy development and operational practice about which more will be said in the coming months”.

So, we have only the summary of a detailed report, of which particular details as to external involvement are unknown, while being informed that the report’s findings are to have major bearing on future policy development. Why the secrecy? If future policy development is to be based on the findings of the review, shouldn’t the full detailed report be made available for public scrutiny the better to shape policy development in this area?

Problems that will almost certainly arise in policy development become apparent from the little information that is provided in the summary.

For example, we are told the review “found evidence that Islamist extremism is a growing problem within prisons” but we have no idea what this “evidence” consists of.

We are told that the growth in the Muslim prison population and the widening scope of terrorism legislation – to include, for example, glorification of terrorism – has contributed to the expansion in the numbers of Muslim prisoners. This increase in numbers is then presented as a contributing factor to “vulnerability to radicalisation” because “statistics show an increasing and disproportionate representation of Muslim within the criminal justice system, which could chime with the radicalisers’ message of the victimisation of Muslims.”

The fact that a disproportionate number of Muslims are in prison, relative to their size in the wider population, is a fact that has been remarked upon in the past to little effect. The failure of policy to address the problem of race in the criminal justice system, where according to the latest research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, black people are “three times more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced than if you are White,” until it purportedly becomes an issue about “risks of radicalisation” is a dereliction of duty suggesting that the politicisation of Muslim prisoners for policy purposes trumps any regard Government may have for the problems facing minorities who find themselves disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.

And if there is a “chiming” between this argument and the use made of it by those claiming “institutional racism”, it would be because there is more than a grain of truth to it.

The summary findings also refer to the possibility of Muslim prisoners increasing in number because of the number of those who have travelled abroad as foreign fighters some of whom “will enter the criminal justice system”.

Perhaps a portion will enter the criminal justice system but in the absence of firm evidence and questions raised as to the severity of the threat actually posed by foreign fighters, this is mere conjecture.

We are also told that “manifestations of extremism must be systematically reported, and sanctions to deter and punish such behaviour applied” but there is little detail offered in respect of what would constitute “manifestations of extremism”.

If the Government’s Prevent policy and its monitoring of “signs of radicalisation” is anything to go by, society should be wary of suggestions that Muslim prisoners be penalised for what are legitimate expressions of religious observance.

The summary findings refers to the various ways in which ‘Islamist extremism’ can manifest itself in prison from “Muslim gang culture” to “charismatic prisoners acting as self-styled ‘emirs’” and “aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam” to “attempts to prevent staff searches by claiming dress is religious” or “exploitation of staff fear of being labelled racist”.

The summary refers to the review team’s emphasis on the “importance of faith to prisoners” though a reading of the summary findings invite serious questions about just how emphatic the review team actually were about Islam in the lives of Muslim prisoners.

For example, the review summary notes that there is a “lack of hard data on conversions or the reasons behind them”, not that this stopped the review from stating Islamist extremism in the prison system manifests itself via “aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam,” and that frontline staff should be supported in their quest to deliver “peaceful faith worship” by “ensuring the appropriate content of sermons” and “closer engagement in the appointment of sessional imams.”

The degree of control asserted by the prospect of “censoring” sermons and interfering in the appointment of imams only reinforces fears expressed many years ago by the Communities and Local Government select committee that the Government’s counter-extremism strategy was meddling in religion. Those fears are heightened given the findings of the summary review which calls for “suitable training for staff with particular emphasis on distinguishing religious and cultural traditions; tightening the vetting of prison chaplains to assess association with organisations linked to extremism; and systematic recording of the promotion of extremist beliefs…”.

An interesting omission in the summary is any mention of the statutory duty which was introduced in the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 which named prisons and probation services among those “specified authorities” to which the Prevent duty applied. The summary makes no mention at all of the implementation of the duty which came into force last year nor alludes to any evidence derived from its operational practice.

The matter is made all the more serious given the former PM David Cameron’s declaration that prisons are the “new front” on tackling radicalisation. Indeed, the new Justice Secretary, Liz Truss, yesterday announced the measures that are to be introduced on the back of the review, such as:

  • creating a new directorate for Security, Order and Counter-Terrorism, which will deliver a plan for countering extremism in prisons and probation services
  • instructing governors to remove extremist literature and putting in place a thorough process to assess materials of concern
  • improving extremism prevention training for all prison officers
  • strengthening vetting of prison chaplains and a range of positions to make sure the right people are in place in prisons to counter extremist beliefs

One further observation from media coverage of the MoJ’s review: Melanie Phillips in The Times today opines that the review is in fact pusillanimous because our “authorities refuse to face reality”.

Mel P’s take on the “reality”?

She writes “The reason for the lack of precision is the government’s extreme reluctance to accept that the threat is uniquely centred upon Islamic religious fanaticism…This all fails to grasp that Islam is both faith and political ideology, and that expansionist jihad is based on the most traditional, purist interpretation of the religion.”

She goes on, “The reason the government is constantly shocked that so many young Muslims are being radicalised is that it still can’t or won’t acknowledge the reality of Islam itself.”

Sadly, the government’s approach is moving closer to Phillip’s designation as the problem being “Islam itself”.

It is fair to say that the myriad of problems emanating from the government’s Prevent strategy, with its poor evidential base, spurious claims as to causal relationships between ‘extremist beliefs’, ‘non-violent extremism’ and violent extremism, and the misrepresentation of religious observance as “signs of radicalisation” will be reinforced by the approach which now looks to be under consideration in prisons.

Last month, Dr Ryan Williams of Cambridge University presented his research on the targeting of Muslim prisoners for their faith and the distorting effect of counter-extremism policy on Muslim prisoner experiences. As with so much of the government’s policymaking in this area, a lack of transparency, the absence of solid evidence to justify policy initiatives, and a patent disregard for fundamental human rights appears to permeate measures to be introduced to fight the “new front” on radicalisation: prisons, probation services and youth justice.


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