Terrorists within UK prison systems

A Discussion

Essay, 2017

10 Pages, Grade: 76


Terrorists in prison is a highly emotive topic, often filled with myths and profound political controversy, alongside tales of abuse, negligence, risk and mismanagement (Silke, 2014). Crenshaw (1992) defined the term terrorism as, a particular style of political violence, using a small number of victims to influence and scare a wider audience. As many different types of terrorist come under this umbrella, this essay will focus on one type of terrorist, the violent religious extremist group, Isis. This essay will evaluate the statement, by abolitionists, that prisons are irrational and counterproductive in relation to terrorists. This will be done by firstly evaluating critical issues around management strategies, risk assessment and the reform of imprisoned terrorists. Also, the risk of further radicalisation and de radicalisation will be explored, emphasising on the risk of keeping such prisoners. This essay will then discuss whether these strategies are successful and if not, this essay will then examine if theories of punishment can be applied to the terrorist. Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS) has aims that are crystallised in the HMPS statement ‘Her Majesty’s Prison Service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts, our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody after release’ (Gibson, 2009). However, HMPS may be able to work towards keeping this promise in regard to other prisoners but, terrorism is different from other types of crime and many terrorists are violent extremists who cause formidable challenges (Silke, 2014). Their management can pose exceptionally difficult problems in the prison setting.

The attacks of September 11th in America were a trigger worldwide for countries to re-evaluate their counter terrorism strategies and laws, with terrorist attacks escalating across the globe from 2001-2017, claiming more than 96,000 lives (Webber,2016). The Terrorism Act 2000, was forced to be updated in 2006. Much of the counter terrorism legislation produced was aimed at Al- Qaeda, however in 2006, an equally dangerous, if not more violent group was emerging, Da’esh or ISIS. They captured territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and announced an establishment of Caliphate, not content with mass slaughter, rape and the enslavement of women, ISIS honed another trademark, the brutal killings of all non-believers (Webber, 2016). Governments and criminal justice systems are now faced with many new dangers and challenges posed by ISIS, such as; returning fighters from Iraq, external radicalised supporters or internal home grown radicalised supporters. As active terrorists do not seem to fear the prospect of arrest, trial or punishment, many countries have resorted to pre-emptive counter terrorism methods to protect the public such as, surveillance and pre-emptive imprisonment (Webber,2016). However, society now lives in the age of enlightenment with a stronger moral obligation to live according to humanitarian principles, some people disagree about the morality of punishment and imprisonment at all (Tunick, 1992). The public however, have a right to safety from dangerous offenders, and it should be acknowledged that prisons are unlike other communities in that they maintain a barrier to social intercourse with the world outside for the public’s safety (Staniforth et al., 2013). In the beginning of the 1990’s there were many radical thoughts and suggestions that prisons ought to be abolished, a government white paper was published in 1990 that stated that prisons were little more than costly universities (Othmani and Bessi, 2008). It was claimed by abolitionists that prison was not a positive solution and only contributed to the criminalisation of society. Encouraging those who were already rotten to become worse, however this statement has not considered the impact on public safety, which has become an issue of high priority with regards to the increasing number of violent religious extremists within the UK (Othmani and Bessi, 2008). The central theme of general abolitionism is that punishment is never justified and argues that the whole criminal justice system is a social problem that needs to be dismantled and replaced with a new system, however, abolitionists have not stated what this new system will consist of (Lilly et al., 2015). Therefore, prisons are now adapting and modernising to meet the demands of the added pressure they find themselves under.

The UK penal system has found itself under increasing pressure to try and develop strategies, policies and interventions to accommodate the growing number of extremist prisoners within its walls (Silke, 2014). Between September 2001 and March 2016, there were 1,150 prisoners charged with terrorist related offences (Grimwood, 2016). The counter Terrorism and Security Act (2015) stated that all public-sector organisations are subject to a duty to prevent people from being drawn to terrorism, however, in 2016 over 1000 prisoners displayed behaviours that raised concerns (Grimwood, 2016). A government report published in October 2015 contained comments made by David Cameron, who described the fight against extremism as one of the greatest struggles of our generation and suggested that prisons must now wake up and accept responsibility for previous years and poor choices (Grimwood, 2016). This responsibility has mainly fallen on the National Offender Management strategy (NOMS), who have developed a series of strategies that can be used regarding these prisoners. The prison service extremist unit has also become a part of NOMS, established in 2007 with the responsibility of developing strategies, policies and procedures appropriate to the risks presented by terrorists (Walker and Lennon, 2015). The first specialist branch to deal with counter terrorism in the mid 60’s only consisted of around 300 officers in the UK, by 1978, the force was 1,638 strong and in 2003, it consisted of 4,247 officers, the number of specialist officers in counter terrorism, by demand is a growing number (Wilkinson, 2007). New risk assessment measures have also been created, such as the violent extremist risk assessment (VERA), which is specifically used for ideologically motivated offenders (Silke, 2014). The most dominant response to the imprisonment of violent extremists is focussed on intelligence gathering, risk assessment and risk management (Walker and Lennon, 2015). Amongst the range of new programmes aimed specifically at violent extremists is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is based on the principle of exposing extremists to mainstream Islam (Veldhuis, 2009). This exposure is facilitated through meeting experienced and respected Islamic scholars, paying attention to the radical extremist’s version and interpretation (Silke, 2014). A study conducted in America by the United States Senate revealed that on average over 80% of prisoners will turn to Islam when converting to a faith whilst in prison (Mulcahy et al., 2013). Therefore, religious counselling is now recognised as a powerful instrument for offender reform, it can encourage the offender to adhere to a more peaceful, moderate religious interpretation, that does not legitimize terrorist activities (Veldhuis, 2009). CBT aims to focus on the understanding and changing of cognitive processes to try and improve abstract thinking, critical reasoning and to encourage goal setting (Veldhuis, 2009). Group discussions, on the job training, parole and probation, individual classifications and needs assessments, social and recreational activities and financial aftercare are several other components of rehabilitation programmes offered by the prison service (Gunaratna and Bin Ali, 2015). Prison rehabilitation is a complex issue, one that will ideally consist of a number of experts working together, such as, psychologists, social workers, religious experts and prison officers in order to achieve a successful rehabilitation or reform (Gunaratna and Bin Ali, 2015). Claims of success have varied, and so far, there are only recordings of successful rehabilitation through intervention programmes that have been used on ‘soft- core’ extremists (Silke, 2011).

However, the workings and success of these rehabilitation programmes are heavily affected by the individual involved, some of the most committed extremists referred to as ‘irreconcilables’ are not receptacle to reform at all (Veldhuis, 2009). In these cases, risk is considered more important, with little attention to the role of rehabilitation (Walker and Lennon, 2015). Prison officials will want to deter, disrupt and detect all communications that would benefit a terrorist’s objective (Gunaratna and Bin Ali, 2015). The UK prison system has a unique way of managing terrorists that differs from The Netherlands, USA and Australia, in UK prisons terrorists are not held separately and are dispersed into the prison population (Jones, 2014). Learning from past experiences with IRA prisoners the UK government are reluctant to categorise and separate terrorists as they found that the segregation promoted solidarity and unity within the extremist group, it made them stronger (Jones, 2014). Terrorists are held in category A prisons, where they are subject to extra supervision, restricted movements and socialising with others, extra searches, and regular cell changes (Jones, 2014).

Although this may seem inhumane towards the prisoner it is good recognition from the prison service that standard risk assessment will not be sufficient to protect the public (Silke, 2014). Alongside the prisons duty to protect the public from violent extremists it is also important that all restrictions placed by prison officials will be applicable to domestic and international law, including the international covenant of civil and political rights (ICCPR) (Gunaratna and Bin Ali, 2015). One of the stated aims of the HMPS is to protect the public and most violent religious extremists pose an immediate danger to the public (Staniforth et al., 2013). This is because of many factors, such as, the global reach of extremists, the immediacy of danger from self-starting groups or lone actors and their total disregard for fundamental human rights. Prison has been, quite often, the very context in which violent action is pondered, produced and planned (Wieviorka, 2004). This assumption is based on a few high-profile cases such as, Kevin James, Levar Washington and Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber who converted to Islam and planned a terrorist attack from inside the prison walls (Wilkinson, 2007). Reid attempted to detonate a bomb on board a passenger plane, claiming that he had become radicalised whilst in prison. These prisoners gave justification for the Government to label all terrorists as high-risk offenders, which led to the public viewing prisons as schools of crime for terrorists, resulting in costly rehabilitation programmes and interventions (Jones, 2014).

These types of ‘high risk ‘prisoners can cause serious implications within a prison setting, such as the evidence of various terrorist factions sharing information, training and intelligence whilst imprisoned. Peer to peer radicalisation has been identified as a contributing factor fuelling extremism, the prisons aims to combat extremism is just one strand of the Governments counter extremist strategy (Grimwood, 2016). The UK prison system can be used as a source of recruitment, with a growing prison population, it can create an environment characterised by individuals who resent the British authorities and the system, therefore, creating conditions conductive to recruitment (Wilkinson, 2007). When an individual is imprisoned it is common for the individual to experience both physical and emotional trauma, making them much more vulnerable and impressionable (Mulcahy et al., 2013). At the beginning of their imprisonment acute and chronic stress related factors such as sleep loss, loss of appetite and the magnification of the pains of imprisonment that Sykes (1958) identified, can give recruiters a perfect opportunity to assess the prisoner’s vulnerability and the likeliness of them conforming to their extremist groups (Mulcahy et al., 2013).


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Terrorists within UK prison systems
A Discussion
University of Hull  (University centre Grimsby)
Criminological studies with social sciences
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
384 KB
terrorists, religious ideology, U.K Prisons
Quote paper
Susan Bailey (Author), 2017, Terrorists within UK prison systems, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/413245


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