The Prison Officers office in a Wing in Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonville, London (Photo by Andrew Aitchison / In pictures via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

It’s time to build prisons

Inadequate facilities hurt everyone

Ahead of what will almost certainly be a crushing defeat to Liz Truss, Tory leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak has been whipping up a blizzard of pledges that appear to have been taken from the snippings of columns that were canned for being too extreme for the much-missed Telegraph Blogs.

Desperate to turn the coverage of the election away from his commitment to take cash from deprived urban areas and redirect to it Tory rural constituencies, Sunak’s campaign team added to the litany of A/B tested right-wingery with a vow to tackle Islamism, which was termed termed Britain’s “most significant terror threat”.

Discussion around how Sunak proposed to pacify this menacing scourge focused on another slab of red meat tucked into the announcement: Rishi would “widen the government’s definition of extremism to encompass those who vilify our country”. 

The separation centre appears more like a ropey Balkan hostel

Ready4Rishi, Ready4Gulag. Condemnation rightly followed, with hardnosed former counter-terror chiefs and liberal free speech activists enjoying a strange moment of unity as they snapped back at the pernicious proposal to criminalise the kind of bland leftism that pervades the cringiest corners of every social media network. Whilst the more demonic side to my political impulses was quietly captivated by the thought of centrist dads being marched off to jail for tweeting threads titled things like “51 times the European Research Group was a bellend”, even I could not resist joining in with the chorus of Sunakkian denunciation. 

The 24-hour furore of arraignment was so severe that nothing else in the Sunak camp’s (relentless) campaign statements broke into the news cycle. This is a shame, because some of it was worthwhile.

Chief among his useful schemes was a pledge to prevent Islamists or other terror offenders from associating in jail together. Bidding for the continuation of the “separation centres” scheme in prisons, which was introduced by the Johnson ministry, Sunak said he would commit to the plans whilst also adjusting legislation to make it easier to isolate extremist prisoners. 

This kind of intervention is long overdue. For the best part of two decades, terrorism experts and policy chiefs have issued warnings about extremists shilling for their evil agendas through the cells. The crisis reached such a peak this year that a report published in April warned of scenarios where guards were communicating to prisoners via “emirs” who had been chosen among them. 

Sunak’s call for separation centres follows reports from the same review which found that just fifteen inmates have entered the facilities that have been built to keep extremists away from the ordinary prison population. More than two hundred inmates are in prison after being convicted under terrorism legislation. Hundreds of other convicted criminals have been considered a terrorist risk. Plenty of others have likely skipped through the cracks.

The prisons service has built separation centres at HMP Woodhill, Full Sutton and Frankland, with a total of just twenty-eight places available to keep hundreds of terrorism offenders distinct from non-extremists.

Frankland is of particular interest. It is where they have kept the brother of Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed dozens at the Ariana Grande MEN Arena concert blast in May 2017. An ITV investigation last year revealed that Abedi was able to socialise and talk to other convicted extremists, chatting through bars and in communal spaces, even exercising outdoors with a suspected Taliban fighter.

Dubbed a “prison within a prison” at HMP Frankland, one of the country’s supposed top-security lock-ups, the separation centre holding Abedi and other terror offenders appears to be more like a ropey Balkan hostel than a rigid system of cells. 

The reinforced doors that keep the terrorists in the separation centre are designed to remove all interaction between terrorist plotters and other terror offenders, but the ITV cameras — which were only in the centre for a brief period — exposed the prisoners casually chatting away between the windows next to each of the cells. At one point, a prisoner — remember, a convicted terrorist who is meant to be prevented from speaking to anyone but prison staff — tells another that he is going for a nap, so they should speak later.

In his statement on plans to support the separation centres, Sunak hinted at backing changes to the law proposed by Dominic Raab. The Justice Secretary has struggled to get terrorist prisoners into the special facilities amid claims it would breach their rights to a private life under the Human Rights Act. Raab cited this struggle when he was compiling arguments for his Bill of Rights, arguing that some prisoners “will poison the well, they will radicalise if they’re left in general population, and they will ultimately recruit more terrorists.”

Whilst a change in legislation might induce some positive change, the crux of the crisis with housing terrorists and other violent offenders is the shortage of sufficient facilities. Britain’s prison estate is crumbling: Victorian, dilapidated and forgotten buildings have given rise to cramped, unsafe conditions for prisoners. It is a raw deal for victims and innocent Britons, who need to be assured that the justice system is working to their benefit.

Most people do not want prisons to reform evil souls

When cells are falling apart, heating systems are broken, and a shortage of space means that prisoners are crammed together, it is no surprise that behaviour behind bars has plummeted to depraved levels. Thus the justice system is under pressure to limit the supply of tenants to the country’s HMPs. 

Critics of our ludicrously light sentences often point to a legal establishment that has gone soft, citing spritely activist barristers and clueless crusty judges operating on behalf of a rehabilitative ideology rather than maintaining the safety and security of the country. Whilst all of this is likely true in several depressing cases, the critiques rarely point to the dilemma caused by an insufficient supply of prisons.

There are just one hundred and fifty prisons and Young Offender Institutions across the UK. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service runs one hundred and thirty-three of them, whilst three private companies operate the other seventeen. As of 5 August, the England and Wales prison population hit 81,051 against a usable operational capacity of 82,943. 

Recognising these perilously close figures, Raab has outlined plans for 4,000 new prison spaces, refurbishing prisons and adding new wings, subject to planning permission. The Justice Ministry wants 20,000 more prison places by 2025 against expectations that the prison population will rise by 23.7 per cent by March 2026, leaping to 98,500.

The plans have attracted widespread condemnation. The usual criminological litany of experts and academics have reacted with scorn, lambasting the “penal populism” that they allege makes Britain less safe. These critics point to the failure of prisons to reduce reoffending, arguing that recidivism rates remain high despite attempts by prisons to encourage a positive return to society after release.

What this group of commentators always leaves out is that most people do not want prisons to reform evil souls. Many rightly have little faith in most violent criminals having a revelatory change of heart. Instead, they are keen to see dangerous, disruptive people taken off the streets. Criminologists typically do not share these priorities, even when presented with a constant stream of tragedies and disasters that are catalysed by the remedial mentality. 

Take a cursory glance at the crime section of any regional news outlet. You will soon encounter a horrifying story where people who clearly should have never been let out of prison, were offered countless opportunities to offend again, and took them.

Theodore Johnson, from north London, murdered his ex-partner with a claw hammer before choking her with a dressing gown cord. The depravity of his killing was made all the more devastating when it was revealed that he had also strangled a girlfriend in 1993. And pushed his wife over a balcony in 1981. Three murders, three devastated families, but barely any pressure to ensure Johnson never felt freedom again.

In 2012, a serial rapist — who had targeted three women, one of whom killed herself, before he was jailed for 21 years in 1991 — was given early release from his prison sentence. He told a newspaper reporter that he had “changed”. He went on to rape again. His latest 16-year sentence is unlikely to be completed.

In such cases, the just and appropriate sentence is more jail time, ensuring more security for innocent people who should live safe in the knowledge that the state is delivering justice on their behalf. It is not “penal populism” to believe that the wife murderer should not be given a second — or third — chance to repeat his crimes. I am not a “penal populist” for demanding that serial rapists never feel free air in their lungs so long as testosterone pumps in their blood. 

All of these examples relate to non-terroristic violent criminality, but the case for more cells and new prisons to ensure greater capacity to store dangerous people is even clearer when considering extremists.

A full review of the conditions of the fifteen inmates already housed in separation centres must take place. If the lack of isolation at HMP Frankland is indicative of wider failings, then Sunak’s call for a continuation of the program is pointless: the terrorists will continue to chat, plot with and radicalise each other without the slightest limitation. I suspect the failures at Frankland are not occurring in isolation. After all, the authorities permitted journalists to visit the space, which suggests that they think it is their best separation facility. Clearly, their best is not good enough. If insufficient space or inadequate existing buildings are behind the shoddy standards, then the call for new prisons and new facilities should grow even louder.

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