Tackling Islamist extremism in prisons: the Acheson Review

In September 2015 the then Secretary of State for Justice commissioned a departmental review led by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, to assess the threat which Islamist extremism and the radicalisation that sustains it pose to prisons and probation services and to assess the capability of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to manage that threat. The Ministry of Justice has now published a Summary of the main findings of the review of Islamist extremism in prisons, probation and youth justice – but not the full report itself.

The report begins from the definition of Islamist Extremism (IE) in the refreshed 2011 Prevent strategy document as:

  • vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs; and
  • calls for the deaths of members of our armed forces, whether in the UK country or overseas.

It takes “Islamism” to be the imposition of an expansionist and politicised version of Islam under which society is to be ordered according to an interpretation of sharia which is anti-Western, hostile to other religions and other strains of Islam and totalitarian. It takes “radicalisation” to be the processes by which adherents to that belief come to adopt it.

The review found evidence that IE is a growing problem within prisons that needs a central, comprehensive and coordinated strategy to monitor and counter it. It makes several recommendations:

  1. “an independent advisor on counter-terrorism in prisons, accountable to the Secretary of State and responsible for an over-arching counter-extremism strategy;
  2. senior postholders responsible for the strategy should have sufficient and credible operational experience;
  3. a new security category for TACT [those sentenced under the Terrorism Act 2000 and its successors] and IE prisoners, managed centrally;
  4. the small subset of extremists within this group who present a particular and enduring risk to national security through subversive behaviour, beliefs and activities to be removed from the general prison population and held in specialist units and given effective deradicalisation interventions;
  5. systematic recording of the promotion of extremist beliefs and threats of violence to staff, with tougher sanctions enforced;
  6. suitable training provided for staff, with particular emphasis on distinguishing religious from cultural traditions;
  7. tightened vetting of prison chaplains to assess association with organisations linked to extremism;
  8. tackling the availability and source of extremist literature;
  9. greater focus on the safe management of Friday prayers, with sanctions imposed for abuse or misuse of all acts of worship;
  10. reviewing procedures under ‘Rule 39’, to ensure confidential privilege in legal correspondence is not being abused;
  11. improved capacity for responding swiftly to serious violent incidents, with regular exercising of this capability and improved coordination with the police, who should be given primacy in handling serious prison incidents.”

On chaplaincy, in particular, the review notes that there are around 69 full-time, 65 part-time and 110 sessional Muslim prison chaplains. It concludes that “while most chaplains were dedicated members of staff and did good and useful work, there is also evidence of a weak understanding and effective approach to IE” and suggested that vetting and clearance arrangements for chaplains should be strengthened.

The Times (£) reported that ministers had “vetoed plans to ban Friday prayers for Muslim prisoners that are being ‘abused and misused’ by extremists” and quoted the MoJ’s response to the recommendation on Friday prayers, as follows:

“We will ensure that governors use their existing powers to remove prisoners from corporate worship where they are behaving subversively or promoting beliefs that run counter to fundamental British values. We do not, however, believe it is the right course of action at present to alter the provision of worship more generally or to pursue in-cell alternatives.”

The Times also reported a prison source as saying: “There would be enormous political fallout as well as risks to the stability of prisons if Friday prayers were banned. It would become an issue of us attacking religion, whatever faith was involved.”

It would also, presumably, become an issue of the right to manifest under Article 9 ECHR.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Tackling Islamist extremism in prisons: the Acheson Review" in Law & Religion UK, 23 August 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/08/23/tackling-islamist-extremism-in-prisons-the-acheson-review/

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