3 May 2023

Can the Government’s counter-extremism measures survive contact with reality?


On Monday, while the rest of you were dancing around a Maypole, I was considering the latest government proposals to control the influence of violent extremists in prison. It was a curious time to release a set of ‘get tough’ policies, until you consider the text, which was largely an exercise in hopeful sophistry. It comes on the heels of several independent reports about the shocking conditions in prisons holding some of our riskiest terrorist prisoners. How these proposals will fare in the real world is another matter altogether.

For instance, we are told that from now on terrorist prisoners will no longer be allowed to clutter their cells with dozens of religious books, which render searching all but impossible. This will be news to any high security prisons that still practice ‘volumetric control’, introduced after a mass terrorist escape from HMP Whitemoor almost three decades ago. This initiative confined the amount of property a prisoner could hold in his cell to the contents of two large boxes. There were exceptions made for other materials, including books, but these were allegedly limited by tests of ‘reasonableness’ and what was ‘essential’. Governors were always able to confiscate extremist literature on the grounds of national security, so why are these new measures now being imposed and will they actually be enforced?

It’s difficult to see how depressed, denuded and demoralised officers at Long Lartin high-security prison will regain this lost ground. In a snap inspection report published a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector Charlie Taylor said the jail, holding terrorists and other highly dangerous prisoners, had ‘lost its way’. High staff assaults and a chornic shortage of frontline officers mean the prison can no longer run a consistent regime, which in turn trashed any efforts at rehabilitation. Prisoners at Long Lartin were confined to their cells, relieving themselves in buckets, when they should have been out learning a trade or getting educated.

The situation is little better at another high-security facility, HMP Whitemoor, where wing staff congregated in offices chatting, seemingly oblivious to conditions in front of them which Taylor described as ‘the dirtiest I have seen since I became chief inspector’.

It is impossible to imagine how frontline staff operating in this squalor could raise their game enough to manage the inevitable confrontation of denying extremist prisoners the material they need to spread their hateful ideologies. They can’t even keep the bins empty. Taylor observed that ‘there is no better sign of decline in a prison than a lack of cleanliness’. He’s right. It’s one thing to remove any ambiguity in the rules to avoid staff being bamboozled and intimidated by people using religion as an excuse to undermine security. It’s quite another to make sure staff enforce these rules and deal with the kickback. 

Anyway, back to the Government’s Bank Holiday press release. Apparently as a result of a ‘new’ report, prison governors will be able to ban extremist prisoners from leading the call to Muslim prayers in our jails or delivering sermons. Seven years ago, my review of Islamist extremism in prisons recommended measures to do just that, but they were rejected by the Ministry of Justice –  who I believe exploited the departure from government of the report’s commissioner, Michael Gove, to abandon several key recommendations that they disliked.

In the intervening seven years, I have been told repeatedly by frontline staff across a number of prisons that staff are constantly on edge during this corporate worship and their authority is relentlessly challenged. Governors so fear the consequences of cancelled Friday prayers in terms of risk of disorder that whenever there is a gap in Imam cover for them, they go ahead anyway, allowing ad hoc services to be conducted or shaped by convicted terrorists.

Again, will already overstretched prison officers be up to the task of taking back lost ground here?

In those recent inspections, over half of the staff surveyed at both Whitemoor and Long Lartin described their morale as ‘low’ or ‘very low’. Close to half of all those responding in both surveys had either never seen their manager at all in a year, or had one meeting to discuss their performance and needs. When your heart is in your boots, things – sometimes lethally important things – get missed.

In either prison, ensuring that ideologues do not gain further traction is a fraught enough task at the best of times. But merely securely containing violent extremists is nowhere near enough to protect our national security. Ideologies that have radicalised others into murder on our streets after release must be challenged. Alternatives to theocratic or actual fascism must be available. That requires suitable and sufficient numbers of well led prisons officers, clearly and confidently in charge of their facilities. Where is there evidence that this prescription exists on the ground, rather than inside the head of a press officer?

Just last week, there was an object lesson in the gap between government rhetoric on prison reform of any kind and the reality presided over by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The Chief Inspector effectively walked out of HM Young Offenders’ Institution Cookham Wood, and issued the new Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk, an ‘urgent notification’ about conditions in this child prison. The picture Charlie Taylor paints is extraordinarily bleak: an atmosphere of anarchy, with children effectively kept in solitary confinement for days on end, some fashioning crude weapons to protect themselves from their fellow inmates, while ‘exhausted’ staff struggling to maintain any kind of order.

Just as concerning is that this red alert had to be delivered as the result of a random inspection. Taylor made the point, pointedly, that over 450 on-site staff were looking after just 77 young offenders, plus 24 senior managers and a specific HQ directorate, heaving with executive directors and leaders, responsible for a grand total of five such establishments. If this place fails in plain sight under such levels of notional HQ management surveillance, how on earth is the public supposed to have any confidence in the latest round of measures to tackle extremism?

Chalk will likely have a different approach to Dominic Raab, whose time as Justice Secretary was beset with difficulties and obstructions getting anything done to improve prison safety. But the challenges are the same. Tomorrow’s terrorists are still being shaped by today’s custody.

There are some definite improvements taking place. The MoJ has been forced to accept extremal joint departmental control of prison extremism with the Home Office. A cross-departmental unit has worked to sharpen and strengthen the policy approach to managing the risk of some of the most dangerous people in western Europe. But policy cannot survive without operational muscle. There is scant evidence the prison boss class has the competence and, sometimes, the appetite to provide the leadership required.

I think Chalk appreciates this stark reality. It should be highly paid bureaucrats reporting to him that provide the leadership to deliver, not random inspections. But what those inspections do reveal is alarming and he has no other easy way to contextualise or challenge what officials tell him. Mayday indeed.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.