18 March 2019

Britain’s prisons are fertile ground for far-right extremism


In the wake of the atrocious terrorist killings in Christchurch, pundits and opinion formers have flocked to the airwaves to tell us things that we already know that are of no practical use. The far right in Britain has been on the rise, searching for meaning and an intellectual underpinning that has been supplied by the unchecked rise of hateful Islamist bigotry.

Supine institutions, cultural relativity and political cynicism have combined to create the conditions where violent extremists take more and more ground and drive simplistic narratives of grievance and alienation. It is without question that we have all the precursors necessary for an event of similar magnitude to the Mosque attacks on our doorstep. It might be harder to obtain automatic weapons in the UK but as the Stockholm, Nice and Westminster terrorists have grimly demonstrated, all you need for a mass casualty incident is a head full of spite and a furniture van.

We obviously need to ask ourselves some very difficult questions about why young men predominantly raised in this country want to kill us. But in the meantime, the pundits and the armchair sociologists casting about for the locus of emerging far-right sentiment ignore the place where the greatest threat and the greatest opportunity exists – our disordered and leaderless prison system.

The latest available date on terrorists in prison from December 18 shows 221 persons in custody for extremist related offences, the second highest since recording began in 2009. While the vast majority were those convicted of Islamist-inspired offences, a steadily increasing 13 per cent have far-right ideologies. This number includes those who hold membership of National Action, the first extreme right-wing group to be proscribed.

At the other end of this dismal conveyor belt, 43 per cent of arrests for extremism-related offences are of white people, which now outstrips any other self-declared ethnicity. While it is important to note that some Islamists are white converts it seems likely not only that this data supports a rise in ideologically motivated far-right offending but given the police effectiveness in this area these arrests will translate into large numbers of a new type of offender in custody.

The custody they will enter has been devastated by years of austerity-driven staff cuts and a corporate strategic response to violent extremism that buried itself in the sands of arrogance and incompetence. Prisons are good for extremists – they are places of extremes. The narrative of alienation and grievance has fertile soil to grow in. Record-breaking levels of violence will means a never ending supply of available, credulous, often highly violent young men entering custody in search of excitement and meaning, attaching themselves to gangs for safety in the absence of proper control by staff and regimes cut to ribbons. In this toxic environment of hyper-magnified emotion, danger and frustration new and malign identities are offered and accepted.

Given the ready availability of illicit mobile phones in prisons it’s a sure bet, for example, that the graphic head cam video showing Brenton Tarrant’s merciless rampage has been seen hundreds of times before tech platforms got their boots on to remove it. In this age of social media, Tarrant carried out his crimes designed to be downloaded and consumed by an internet generation he could either inspire or outrage depending on the audience. In the claustrophobic and volatile confines of our prison system, such foul propaganda has huge potential.

The demographics of our penal system lend themselves towards radicalisation. There are disproportionate numbers of Muslim prisoners and ex-servicemen amongst those detained in our prisons – around 15 per cent and 4 per cent of the total prison population respectively. Both groups will have been made vulnerable by past and present acts of terrorism “over the wall”. Both are available targets in a fraught environment where it is not always clear if staff are fully in control of people with little else to lose. Many of the young white men in prison – who are the vast majority — come from the same places and have the same life experience as those now intellectualising the far-right. Some prisons have already fractured along informal ethnic and religious identities.

For these young men, in the landings as on the streets, power, respect and identity are hugely important and there to be weaponised. Prisoners will also react to a prevailing sense of not being spoken to, for or about by a remote political class they perceive has abandoned them. They will be uniquely vulnerable to those who seek to draw them into hateful ideologies and beliefs. Unlike the outside, however, incarceration provides no release or counterpoint to that exposure.

There is some potential good news in this gloom. The very circumstances that render so many vulnerable to violent extremism could also hold the key to their salvation from it. Prisons do not have to be incubators for extremism. Properly resourced and led and with the right training for staff, we could use prison to challenge hateful ideologies on the landings, target those most vulnerable to it and equip them with the life skills and practical training to have alternatives. Instead of being places that divide along ideological, ethnic or gang lines, prisons could become places where civic virtues and democratic values are promoted, explained and encouraged.

A captive audience doesn’t have to be one always led astray. Terrorists hate normality. A prison that has legitimate control, busy, purposeful regimes and confident staff in charge is not one that will easily grow a future violent extremist. Hate preachers can’t function when everyone is busy with rehabilitation. Moreover, it is quite clear from informed sources within the prison service that far-right extremism is a serious threat that is routinely discussed with senior managers and intelligence agencies. Better late than never.

In the scheme of things, extremism in prison is just one of a number of serious challenges that the political leadership of the prison service faces. But away from the public gaze and within those walls we continue to assemble all the ingredients of an enduring lethal threat to national security. Terrorism does not end at the prison gate and nor should our efforts to counter it. At the moment, the risk of today’s prison burglar becoming tomorrow’s Brenton Tarrant is simply far too high.

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Ian Acheson is a former prison Governor and senior advisor for the Counter Extremism Project.