The government is seriously considering placing all convicted Islamist terrorist prisoners in England and Wales in a single secure unit, a proposal for a “British Alcatraz” that is prompting alarm among prison chiefs.
The idea would overturn 50 years of dispersing the most dangerous prisoners in the system and is expected to be backed by a review set up by the justice secretary, Michael Gove, to examine how the 130 convicted Islamist terrorists are dealt with behind bars.
Earlier this week, David Cameron gave a strong hint in a that the option of a separate secure unit is being looked at. The prime minister said he was ready to consider major changes in the location of convicted terrorist prisoners to prevent them recruiting up to 1,000 current prisoners who have been identified as being at risk of extremist radicalisation.
“We will not stand by and watch people being radicalised like this while they are in the care of the state … And I want to be clear – I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in prison to changing the locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required,” Cameron said.
However, a leading counter-terror expert warned that bringing together all convicted Islamist prisoners in one “jail within a jail” risks creating a focal point for public protests.
Prof Peter Neumann said: “The trade-off is this: you want to separate terrorist prisoners in order to prevent them from radicalising others yet you don’t want to create a focal point for public protests – a ‘British Guantanamo’, however much of a misrepresentation that might be – or provide an opportunity for terrorist prisoners to create (or recreate) operational command structures inside prison that might not have existed outside.”
Since the 1960s terrorists incarcerated in England and Wales have been dispersed among six maximum security jails. They have then been regularly moved around the dispersal prisons to prevent long-term relationships building up between them.
Any of the current dispersal prisons could be designated to hold all convicted Islamist terrorists and converted to create a segregated terrorist unit or “jail within a jail” within their perimeter. They include Frankland near Durham, Full Sutton near York, in Worcestershire, Wakefield in West Yorkshire, Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, and in south-east London.
Gove’s review is being led by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor and a senior Home Office official, who is understood to be actively considering recommending a separatist solution and holding convicted Islamist terrorists in one jail.
Downing Street is also understood to be interested in this approach, citing recent developments in France where Islamist terrorists have been concentrated together in isolation wings to prevent them radicalising the much larger Muslim prison population in French jails.
“Michael Spurr [the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service] is very concerned that Acheson is going to come to the wrong conclusion,” said a Whitehall source.
Neumann also warned that a separatist unit could provide an opportunity to create an “operational command and control structure” for Isis in Britain that currently does not exist inside or outside the prison system.
“The second point is now more important than ever. With large numbers of ‘lone operators’ who may not be particularly ideological and who have failed to join the command and control structures of groups like IS, the risk of them connecting with ideological and operational leaders while imprisoned is real. In other words, a policy of concentration may inadvertently help to create the kind of hierarchical organisation that the terrorists found it impossible to create outside,” said Neumann.
The experience at the in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, where republican and loyalist prisoners organised themselves along military lines and ran their respective H-blocks, is often cited as the main argument against a separatist solution.
Neumann, the author of an authoritative study comparing prison regimes for terrorist prisoners in 15 countries, said there was a trade-off involved but he thought the current British dispersal system was probably the best way of tackling the issue.
The issue of a single maximum security prison to house the most unruly and disruptive prisoners in the system was raised in 1995 after the at Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire.
The official Learmont inquiry recommended they be housed in a purpose-built US-style supermax prison because the then growing availability of explosives and weapons to criminals posed a much greater threat than before. But it was never implemented by the then home secretary, Michael Howard.
But as Neumann points out in his study, the IRA prisoners in English jails made no deliberate attempt to radicalise or recruit “ordinary criminals” who they saw as unreliable and ill-disciplined: “Many al-Qaida affiliated prisoners, on the other hand, see it as their duty to propagate their faith and political ideology and will consequently exploit whatever opportunities they are offered to approach other offenders and turn them into followers.”
Early last year France started to experiment with separating suspected Islamist radicals from the general prison population at the large Fresnes jail. The “quarantine” programme which also tries to separate returnees from Syria and Iraq from seasoned jihadists was expanded to several Paris prisons in the aftermath of the .
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The justice secretary has asked the department to review its approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in prisons. This is being supported by external experts and sits alongside the cross-government work currently under way in developing deradicalisation programmes.”