Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Terrorism in prisons

A new report opens the lid on a growing problem

A report published last week by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation entitled Terrorism in Prisons marks a step forwards in the recognition of this problem.

It makes for some stark reading.

The report, written before the conviction of Ali Harbi Ali for the Islamic motivated murder of Sir David Amess MP, notes that “the last four completed terrorist attacks in Great Britain have been carried out by prisoners serving their sentences in custody … or on licence in the community”. It points out that prisoners’ intent on encouraging terrorism “might find it easier to radicalise others if they were imprisoned for breaching their orders” than if they were out in the community. 

The report cites evidence of Islamist gangs in many prisons

The report cites evidence that there are Islamist gangs in many prisons, adopting a stance “that condones or encourages violence towards non-Muslim prisoners, prison officers and the general public”.

These gangs have been found to have “dominated the prisons in numbers and influence”. The report states that fear amongst prison staff and prisoners enables “extremist prisoners to exercise significant power and influence within the prison”.

Alarmingly, the author notes, “I was told that prison officers sometimes appeal to the wing ‘emir’ for their assistance in maintaining good order.” “Emir” is the Arabic word for “commander” that is generally used to refer to the dominant Muslim prisoner on a prison wing.

Terrorist offenders “occupy positions of influence” in these gangs and are “sought out and promoted”.

This gang culture glorifies terrorist behaviour and gives terrorist offenders a “perverse esteem”. Prisoners have, for example, shown support for the Manchester Arena bombing. Videos promoting Islamic State propaganda have been found in prisons, and the report states that, “It is highly likely that materials like these are currently being used to influence and reinforce violent views among inmates.” 

The report notes that encouragement of terrorism is a criminal offence, as is expressing support for terrorist groups. It argues that such offence should be properly dealt with, and the Terrorism Acts  amended to ensure that these offences can be prosecuted when carried out in prison. It is “unnecessary to use the ambiguous terms ‘extremist’ or ‘extremism’”; we can refer to these as terrorism related violence or offences.

The report notes that Islamist gangs can seek to control behaviour in the prison through

“the use of sharia courts and punishment (including flogging); undermining the prison Imam at Friday prayers or boycotting official Friday prayers; making insincere allegations of racism and Islamophobia or mistreatment against staff to delegitimise staff authority; acting collectively to intimidate staff when their behaviour is challenged; demanding to wear certain clothes or refusing to participate in work or activities; refusing to be searched by female staff; assaulting other prisoners for faith-based reasons.”

Discussion of Islam has become a “no-go area” for prison staff who are afraid of being accused of discriminating against Muslims. This leads to a reluctance to challenge Islamist group behaviour. In some cases, Muslims have sought to “exclude staff from attendance at Friday prayers” or to impose conditions on entry such as staff removing shoes.

Disturbingly, the author notes that he found some prison governors who “took the view that cooperation with police and partners should simply be refused because it was likely to cause too much trouble to the good order and discipline of the prison”.

He argues, “Reducing the risk of terrorism in prison and amongst prisoners ought to be a core part of the governing governor’s remit.” It is actually quite incredible that governors would refuse to cooperate with police, and this means that reducing terrorism and cooperating with the police certainly need to be part of the governor’s remit.

The proportion of prisoners who are Muslim has increased from 8 per cent in 2002 to 18 per cent in 2021. That is more than one in six prisoners being Muslim. A 2014 report found that 27 per cent of prisoners in London are Muslim — that is more than a quarter. This compares with Muslims accounting for around four per cent of the general population, and 14 per cent of the London population.

There should be zero tolerance for glorifying terrorism in prisons

As for prison chaplains, as of 2018 there were 61 full-time equivalent Muslim prison “chaplains” (nearly 40 per cent of all chaplains working in prisons), compared with 157 Christian prison chaplains.

This makes the Prison Service one of the largest employers of Muslim religious professionals in the country. One such Imam actually banned a Christian pastor, Pastor Paul Song, from chaplaincy work because he regarded the pastor’s evangelical materials, including the well-known Alpha Course, as too radical.

Pastor Song complained about Islamic extremists hijacking his Bible meetings, and praising the killer of Fusilier Lee Rigby. He feared for his own safety in the prison, and warned that Muslim gangs were being allowed to act with impunity and were intimidating inmates to convert to Islam.

The recommendations from the report are helpful so far as they go, but they do not go nearly far enough.

Of course, governors should be formally accountable for reducing the risk of terrorism in prisons. It’s quite incredible that they have been able to ignore the problem up to now. There should be zero tolerance for promoting or glorifying acts of terrorism in prisons. If the Terrorism Acts need amending to enable this, then let’s amend them. It is clear that this is an urgent and growing problem.

I wrote an article in 2020 on How to tackle the Islamisation of prisons. In that article I put forward eight concrete proposals for changing the culture of the prison system. At heart, we must recognise the Islamic motivation of most convicted terrorists. As the report says, “The current terrorist threat in prisons in England and Wales is Islamist terrorism. There is no other comparable threat.” This is not a coincidence. I have explained in detail before why Islam is not a peaceful religion. This needs to be recognised, rather than trying to pretend otherwise. 

There needs to be a wholesale change of culture whereby prison staff are not afraid to challenge Muslims and even criticise their beliefs.

As I said before, “Prison staff should be given training in how to challenge the claims of Islam when they conflict with British values. They should be encouraged and supported in challenging Islamic ideology, rather than left in fear of being called racist for doing so. Instead of being intimidated they should be emboldened.” Also: “Books, pamphlets and other resources which challenge the claims of Islam, from a Christian perspective should be openly provided in all prisons, including testimonies from Muslim converts to Christianity.”

What we really need is more chaplains like Paul Song who are willing to go into prisons and see prisoners converted and radically changed. Chaplains like him should be encouraged and promoted rather than banned from prisons. If you know a Christian who works in prison ministry, do encourage them and pray for them.

Let’s also pray that the government listens to this report and decides that prison culture has got to change.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover