How can Anjem Choudary be stopped from radicalising other prisoners?

Anjem Choudary: awaiting sentence. Hannah McKay / PA Archive

Anjem Choudary, who has been convicted of inviting support for Islamic State, is not the first Islamist ideologue to spend time in a British prison. He follows in the footsteps of other high-profile preachers such as Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, and like them, he now poses a special challenge for the prison authorities. Can he be de-radicalised? Will he radicalise other prisoners and is he as dangerous in prison as he was outside of it?

Over the past ten years the prison system in England and Wales has completely transformed the way it manages and tries to reform extremist prisoners. Ground-breaking new programmes and systems have been introduced specifically to tackle the problems posed by Islamist extremists. Prison radicalisation is frequently flagged up as a major concern, but terrorist and extremist prisoners actually make up a tiny minority of the prison population. Just 183 prisoners were incarcerated for terrorism-related offences within a prison population of more than 85,000 inmates at the end of 2014. About two thirds of these were connected to extremist Islamist groups, with the remaining third largely composed of far-right extremists.

Tight security

The prison system divides terrorist prisoners into three groups: international, domestic and Irish. International terrorists (regardless of nationality) are those connected to a terrorist group that is based outside the UK. This includes all prisoners affiliated to or inspired by groups such as Al Qaeda or Islamic State. It is this category that Choudary will fall under.

In security terms, Choudary will, at least initially, be classified as a Category A prisoner. Category A is applied to those prisoners considered highly dangerous and for whom escape should be made impossible. All terrorism-related prisoners are automatically categorised as Category A on their entry into the system.

Category A prisoners must be held at high-security prisons. There are currently eight high security prisons in England and Wales and combined they hold more than 3,000 prisoners (but only around half of these inmates are Category A). The last Category A terrorist prisoner escape in England and Wales occurred in 1994 when five IRA prisoners escaped from HMP Whitemoor, an incident which prompted a major overhaul in the security surrounding such prisoners.

Restrictions on prisoners

One benefit of the tighter security restrictions imposed on Category A prisoners is that it makes it more difficult for them to attempt to radicalise other prisoners. Category A prisoners do not share cells and their interactions with other prisoners are closely monitored. This is particularly the case with extremist prisoners, and an ideologue such as Choudary will be monitored very closely.

But there are significant costs. The enhanced security means that it costs almost £60,000 a year to hold a Category A prisoner, twice the cost of holding Category B and Category C prisoners.

HMP Belmarsh: one of eight high-security prisons. Anthony Devlin/PA Archive

The rise of Islamist terrorism in the UK in the 2000s brought about further major changes. It was quickly realised the jihadi-inspired terrorists were very different to the IRA prisoners seen in the previous 30 years. There were very few prison staff from Muslim backgrounds and there was a real lack of understanding of the culture and mind-set of the Islamists. There were also real fears that the jihadis would try to radicalise other prisoners and could turn prisons into breeding grounds for violent extremism.

In order to combat this threat, prisons in England and Wales developed one of the best funded and organised prison Imam systems in the world. The prison Imams provide religious support and guidance for all Muslim prisoners and help ensure that extremists cannot takeover the role of religious leader on the wings (something which happened in French jails in recent years).

De-radicalisation tools

The imams play a key role in educating prisoners on the true tenants of mainstream Islam. A religious de-radicalisation programme, Al Furqan, was also developed in 2011. This targeted the beliefs of extremist prisoners in particular and tried to work with them to embrace a more moderate faith. To the great surprise of many, however, this important programme was scrapped by Michael Gove in 2015 shortly after he assumed control of the Ministry of Justice.

A programme that thankfully survived the Gove era is Healthy Identity Intervention (HII). This involves specially trained psychologists or experienced probation staff working one-to-one (or sometimes two-to-one) with an extremist prisoner. Over a series of weekly sessions, which can continue for several months, the programme focuses on helping prisoners to disengage from an extremist group or ideology.

Another important tool developed within prisons is Extremism Risk Guidance 22+. This is the assessment framework used for terrorist and extremist prisoners. The National Offender Management Service recognised that the existing risk assessments used for ordinary prisoners were a bad fit for terrorist prisoners. Launched in 2011, ERG22+ assesses offenders on 22 factors which are theoretically related to extremist offending. Staff use the model to assess an individual’s mindset and capability for terrorism. They will try to interview the prisoner as part of this assessment, and for example, an individual’s progress on the HII can feed into it.

Choudary will certainly be assessed using the ERG framework and in time he will also be given the chance to take part in the HII programme. Whether he accepts that opportunity or not is another matter. A third of extremist prisoners have refused to take part and among the recalcitrants are many senior figures. I suspect that Choudary will follow their example and turn down involvement in HII or similar programmes.

In February 2016, the former prime minister, David Cameron, announced that mandatory de-radicalisation programmes would be introduced for extremist prisoners. This was before Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and when Gove was still in charge at the Ministry of Justice. Nothing further about these mandatory programmes has been announced and I wonder if this is really a feasible option anyway. There is general international consensus that prison de-radicalisation programmes do not work with hardline prisoners who are deeply committed to the cause.

Nevertheless this does not mean that Choudary will leave prison unchanged. Prison does provide a time for contemplation. Ultimately, in prison Choudary will be forced to reflect on his life, his priorities, and crucially what will he do after release. As the years pass by, change in some form could come from within or outside of official de-radicalisation programmes.

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