What do we know about Islamist extremism in prison?

Work with offenders looks at new Ministry of Justice research

The Ministry of Justice has published new research “Exploring the nature of extremism in three prisons”. The research undertaken by Beverly Powis, Louise Dixon and Jessica Woodhams, sets out to explore the extent and nature of prisoner radicalisation in three high security prisons in England, how the establishments were managing extremist prisoners and responding to the risk of radicalisation.

The research is based on interviews conducted in 2014 (the MoJ provides no indication as to why the research is only being published now) with 83 male prisoners and 73 staff from a range of disciplines, including, prison wing officers, security staff, psychologists, offender supervisors and chaplains.

Although the study set out to examine all forms of extremism, interviewees only discussed Islamist extremism, considered to be the most prevalent extremist ideology in prisons at the time of the fieldwork.

Key findings

The study found that, despite their small number, those convicted of Islamist extremist offences had a disproportionately disruptive influence in the prisons, exerting power and influence over other prisoners. However, not all these prisoners were interested in pursuing an Islamist extremism agenda. The researchers identified two main groups: those who were motivated by an extremism agenda and those more interested in orchestrating anti-establishment and criminal activities of what was frequently described as a ‘prison gang’. Those who were motivated by extremism were making attempts to radicalise others. While some prisoners outside of these groups were reported to express sympathies with Islamist extremism, there was little suggestion they would act upon this when released.

Prisoners who interviewees considered to be more susceptible to Islamist radicalisation were those thought to be most vulnerable within prison, who had the strongest sense of loss, loneliness, and alienation. They also tended to have grievances against society and the prison system, channelling their anger and frustration into extremism.

While it was reported by those interviewed that some prisoners were converting to Islam (with conversions to Islam reported to be higher than for any other faith), they were perceived, on the whole, to be doing so to help them survive in prison, with the Muslim faith offering the benefits of friendship and support. Religious behaviour did not typically compromise security and was identified by respondents as a useful aid to rehabilitation.

The study highlighted the importance of fostering a supportive environment in countering the risk of Islamist radicalisation, where staff were able to build relationships with prisoners. It was thought that this could be facilitated by ongoing staff training to increase their understanding of the Muslim faith and ensuring there were sufficient staffing levels to allow officers time to interact with prisoners. Media reporting was thought to increase divisions between Muslim prisoners and staff, with negative stereotypes of Muslims being perpetuated, especially in the tabloid press. The need for strong counter arguments to challenge these stereotypes was recognised.

More recent research, undertaken by the Muslim charity Maslaha,  has found that Muslims in prison were highly aware of how their religiosity might be seen and the negative impact that this could have on them. Although less than one percent of Muslim people in prison have been convicted of terror offences, there are concerns that every Muslim prisoner is seen as a potential prisoner and a simple daily act such as praying together can raise security concerns.

The people interviewed by the MoJ study generally thought that the strategies used by the prison service to disrupt the influence of extremists were largely effective. Management of extremists included moving problematic prisoners to different establishments to disrupt their influence and power base and gathering and disseminating intelligence on extremist activity. Imams were also thought to play an important part in countering extremism. However, it was recognised that their role was challenging and had expanded over time. The need to provide prison Imams with sufficient support so they are able fulfil their many, different functions was highlighted.

Changes to counter terrorism approaches

The study also includes information about recent changes that HMPPS has introduced following the recent terrorist attacks involving released prisoners. There is a new multi-agency intelligence hub to co-ordinate quicker and better information and intelligence exchange between operational partners and enable better detection and disruption of the terrorist risk in prison and those under probation supervision in the community. HMPPS has also introduced a dedicated counter terrorism assessment and rehabilitation centre, where psychologists and specialist staff will be delivering an updated comprehensive assessment and rehabilitation strategy.