Terrorism and prison policy UK

Streatham High Road was at first depressingly familiar. There was the same police tape, shaken witnesses, and forensic officers in their white crime scene suits that I had seen after the stabbings in Poplar and Seven Kings. But this time the attacker was a convicted terrorist, just released from prison. What did this say about how we – and I in particular as an ex-Minister for Prisons – managed terrorists in custody?

My first discovery in the job, in January 2018, was that prison staff were struggling to manage the lethal threat of terrorists, amidst a much broader crisis of safety, order and decency. In Liverpool, half the windows were broken in a wing – so prisoners could stick their hands straight out to take drugs from drones. In Lewes, an X-ray scanner had been broken for seven months. Ancient Victorian prisons like Wormwood Scrubs needed to be closed (not least to free up land for affordable housing in London) but it was impossible when there were 82,000 prisoners crammed in cells designed for 62,000. I saw a man walk straight up to the Governor, shout ‘F off’, and continue without any reprimand. Violence had tripled in five years. There were over 10,000 assaults on prison officers a year. These were all things that I was determined to fix.

But meanwhile, Prison and probation officers were managing terrorists in awful conditions. Most terrorist offenders had only been convicted of relatively minor offences – and so would be released sooner or later. We had only a short period in which to make these men less dangerous. It is possible to deradicalize. We have succeeded in the past – very few terrorists actually go on to reoffend. But when they do the impact is horrifying. And deradicalization programmes require high knowledge and skills. Prison officers were extraordinary public servants but they were not experts on radical Islam. Even hard-working prison Imams admitted that they struggled to debate jihadist ideology with educated fanatics.

And how did we ensure that the terrorists didn’t radicalise others? I saw, serving in Iraq, how the mass incarceration in the Abu Ghraib prison created a terrorist training school. When the US army released them, many of the prisoners formed the core of Isis. So we had to be careful not to put too many terrorists in one place. But we also had to be careful not to put charismatic individuals into the general population in case they converted criminals to the cause. (Traditionally in Britain there have been not been strong links between terrorists and criminal gangs – which meant that terrorists struggled to access firearms. Prison was a place where such lethal connections could be made).

Ian Acheson, a thoughtful ex-Prison governor, had proposed solutions. He had pushed to establish specialist separation centres. There were successes. By removing one radical – who had turned prisoners against a moderate Imam – we were able to increase attendance in the moderate mosque by 85 per cent. But Ian had left, saying that he found the system defensive and reluctant to engage with many of his excellent recommendations.

So what does a Minister do?  I began with the basics – saying I’d resign if we didn’t reduce violence. I brought in a Brigadier, and invited the governors to spend two days in my house. (The Governor of Leeds gave me good tips on my garden). We established an ops-room, championed prison officers on the landings, wrote a new handbook, doubled the maximum sentence for assaulting officers, fixed broken windows, bought x-ray scanners, and improved rehabilitation programmes. Violence reduced by 16 per cent in a few months. But safer and more orderly prisons, although essential, were only the beginning. There was so much more I wanted to do, before I was moved out of the job.

It was almost impossible, for example, to know how many prisoners were university graduates, let alone acquire a rich case history of an individual terrorist. Integrating separate NHS, police, social services, prison and probation databases was expensive and legally challenging. But the government should at least immediately put all prison and probation records into single searchable files. We must train a new cadre of specialists, who know how to work with terrorists and manage risks. And they need to be continually retrained – because the kinds of terrorists I was dealing with in Afghanistan in 2001 (educated, ideologically aware, and technologically sophisticated), were completely different from recent London attackers (less educated, and not parts of formal organisations). Single case officers should be assigned to terrorists throughout their time – from the moment of arrest, right through to their licenced sentence in a community.

And, we need to improve control on release. I found it frustratingly difficult to do a pilot on tagging with the Mayor of London, because I suspect he didn’t want to take the political risk of co-operating with a Conservative government.  If I were Mayor of London I would push to take control of local probation as well as policing, so that offenders do not fall through gaps in the system. We need more detailed knowledge to decide whether to exclude offenders from particular mosques or contacts. We should be willing to keep offenders in highly secure accommodation, on 24 hour lock down, outside prison – and to bring them back to prison more quickly when they breach licence conditions. And we need to invest in technology. I introduced GPS enabled tags, so that we could follow a released offender’s exact movements in the community, and wore one myself. But there are now tracking devices with far greater capacity to monitor position, heart rate, and use of prohibited substances in real time. We should buy them.

Prisons are isolated islands, from which too often people emerge more dangerous than they entered. They can only be fixed by getting some basic details right. That mean more fierce independent inspections, more willingness to admit mistakes, a better balance of compassion, and discipline. It is our best chance of reforming those terrorists that can be reformed, and of protecting us from those that cannot.

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