Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Prison Radicalisation: a Prisoner’s Perspective

Perhaps it’s inevitable in the present climate of anxiety about terrorism that the issue of radicalisation of prisoners whilst they are in custody remains highly controversial. Having served time in a couple of specific prisons where this has been a problem, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the process of radicalisation and why it can happen.

Shorts in the shower
When it comes to the practical impacts of various radical groups inside our prisons, I’ve explored some of the issues in a previous blog post: Shorts in the Shower: Prison Extremism. However, I haven’t really explored the issue of how radicalisation inside jail seems to occur. This is often a very complex process that rarely seems to be analysed in detail. Having previously lived and worked in three Muslim countries during my career, and having some very close Muslim friends both inside and outside of prison, I feel that I can share some personal insights. 

Being in prison can be a very isolating and lonely experience. Some people seem to cope with incarceration reasonably well, but our prisons also hold a large proportion of people who are already very damaged human beings – many of whom have left a trail of misery and devastation in their wake prior to being sent down. 

A fair number of prisoners are individuals in search of meaning in their lives. For some, positive mentoring can help to fill that aching void, but others can be particularly susceptible to the attraction of belonging to an exclusive group. That doesn’t necessarily need to be a religious conversion – although a large number of cons do seem to ‘get God’ when they are banged up – as extremist politics also has the potential to draw some people in, especially when there is a charismatic leader figure to whom loyalty can be pledged.

In recent months there have been various official reports concerning the influence of gangs within prisons and Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). For example, in its most recent report on YOI Feltham HM Inspectorate of Prisons identified 48 specific gangs operating within the establishment which holds around 240 boys and youths aged from 15 to 18 at one site and around 400 young men aged 18 to 21 on a separate location. According to the inspectors, conflicts at the YOI, fuelled by gang-related tensions, were leading to “unpredictable and reckless violence”.

While some of this gang-related activity has been imported from the streets where gang membership and networking can become a survival strategy for some youths and adults, as well as a means of making money from drug dealing and other criminal activities, the existence of such groups inside prisons can both challenge the security of an institution and lead to the recruitment of new ‘foot soldiers’ on the wings and units. In my experience, there can be close links between gang activity and radicalisation – whether that is essentially religious or political in character.    

In the gang? Or are you on your own?
Most prisoners quickly come to realise that there is strength in numbers on prison wings or residential units. An isolated con can be vulnerable. For many, membership of a gang or another clearly defined group can offer much-needed protection, as well as social ties – even genuine friendship. 

I’ve written in previous posts about the importance of having good mates in the nick. It’s not just a question of having people that you can trust around you, it’s also psychologically important for most cons to know that they aren’t alone. There is a strong need to feel that others are watching your back and will come to your aid in conflict situations or help you out in times of trouble.

There can also be a strong drive for conformity within a wider context of institutionalisation. Few prisoners really want to be the ‘odd man out’ or to be regarded as the loner or ‘wing weirdo’. Wider society – maybe even your own relatives – may have rejected you because you’re banged up inside the nick, but your mates on the landings, your ‘bluds’ or ‘bruvs’ can offer an alternative kind of family. Add in the dynamic of a popular or charismatic con as the ‘daddy’ or leader of the group and you have an often invisible social structure where loyalty and trust counts for pretty much everything.

I think that this need to belong to something bigger than yourself mirrors much of what happens in our wider communities outside prison, particularly among disaffected and alienated younger males. It also goes beyond the desire for the protection that group or gang membership can provide. I think that it can often include a search for meaning, as well as for an alternative kind of family support. 

"Wagwan? Blud!"
This mentality is reflected in the widespread use of the language of brotherhood: ‘blud’ (blood), ‘fam’ (family), ‘bruv’ (brother), ‘bro’ (brother), ‘cuz’ (cousin). Some of these may be just figures of speech imported from the street, but in other cases they are used to define group membership, both in and out of prison. 

Perhaps the development of such ties and bonds will always be an inevitable consequence of locking large groups of men together for extended periods of time. It also serves to reinforce the ‘them’ and ‘us’ divisions between inmates and staff, as well as among prisoners who belong to rival gangs or other groups.

Against this background – the need to belong, to have membership of something – it’s not surprising that religious and/or political extremism can appear very attractive as the cement that can hold a particular group together. Although British prisons haven’t yet developed the gang culture that dominates most prisons and jails in the USA, Russia or Latin America, which are often sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines, there is still a very serious risk posed by inter-gang violence in many prisons, as noted in recent HM Inspectorate reports. 

Street gangs recruit in jails
While political ideologies in our prisons are often much more narrowly defined by concepts of race and culture, religious extremism has the capacity to cross many of these boundaries. In terms of successful proselytising, radical Islam is undoubtedly the most effective force within prison communities. By promising radical, often simplistic solutions for very complex problems both in the UK and across the globe, extremist ideology can quickly fill a vacuum of identity, meaning and purpose. 

Young men whose lives were empty can suddenly find something new that they feel will redefine them and their role in society. Since radical Islam of the Islamic State (IS) variety appears committed to the defeat and destruction of the existing world order, the ideology neatly plays into the widespread hatred and contempt many prisoners feel towards the ‘establishment’ and this usually includes the prison authorities. This brand of nihilistic extremism also feeds on genuine grievances that are common across the prison estate, as well as relieving some of the daily boredom of imprisonment. For some cons, the fact that identifying with terrorists is illegal in the UK makes it all the more exciting.

While I was in prison myself I observed how radical Islamist groups can appeal to a very wide and diverse group of prisoners who might have little else in common. In some jails young lads from non-Muslim backgrounds are attracted by the idea of belonging to a religious movement that stresses brotherhood and solidarity. When these groups also become visibly more powerful on wings or house blocks, then they are perceived to offer real levels of protection to otherwise isolated or vulnerable prisoners. 

Conversion can offer a fresh start
Lacking any other experience of Islam – particularly in its non-radical forms – prison converts may find it very difficult to make informed decisions on religious questions, preferring to follow the lead of group leaders. In some cases, radical groups can assume a ‘shadow’ existence within an establishment, functioning on the margins of orthodox Muslim practice by outwardly participating with other Muslims in officially sanctioned common worship, while actively undermining the leadership and teaching of moderate imams, chaplains and prayer leaders who are regarded as ‘sell outs’ to the prison authorities or ‘collaborators’.

This can impact on everyday life in prison. I have witnessed some very heated discussions in jails between Muslim prisoners over what should be regarded as ‘haram’ or sinful. The subjects of these debates can include whether listening to music (particularly instrumental or when performed by female artists, as well as any music that might be considered non-religious) is forbidden in Islam. 

Other issues that are discussed include whether a Muslim prisoner should be willing to accept sharing a cell with a non-Muslim and, if so, what ‘rules’ the observant Muslim should insist upon being observed (for example, no pork products being ordered from the menu sheet or ways of using the in-cell toilet). Smoking – including tobacco, cannabis and so-called herbal highs – can be another hot topic especially as around 80 percent of all adult male prisoners smoke. 

Robe for Friday prayers
In some prisons Muslim inmates are much more visible on the wings than other faith groups because of the widespread use of religious garments and artifacts, especially on Friday afternoons when jumu’ah salat (congregational prayer) takes place. Although adherents of other religious groups do sometimes wear outwardly visible symbols, particularly neck crosses or rosaries round their necks or Sikh headwear, the visible impact of a large number of Muslims going to their prayers dressed in traditional robes strikes a very vivid contrast with non-Muslim prisoners who wear prison clothing or private casual wear. It makes a very public statement and can demonstrate numerical strength on a particular wing or unit.

Of course, it is also fair to state that many mainstream Muslim inmates who have grown up in their faith are deeply suspicious of the motives of some of the recent prison converts. It is a well-recognised phenomenon that a few non-Muslim inmates in every jail will suddenly declare themselves as having converted just before the start of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. Some of my Muslim fellow cons used to get quite indignant at this, suspecting that the real reason for the unexpected conversion was motivated by the perception that fasting Muslims received better food in the evenings when breaking their fast at the iftar meal. It can be seen as just another way that some cons cynically try to play the system for their own advantage.

Extremism of all sorts
Although the UK government’s Prevent Strategy – which seeks to combat radicalisation – does include prisons (along with universities and other institutions), my own view is that there is a lack of practical understanding about how extremism of various kinds can flourish inside our jails. Research on this topic seems to be very limited.

In its report issued in December 2013 the Prime Minister’s Task Force stated that: “We will not tolerate extremist activity of any sort, which creates an environment for radicalising individuals and could lead them on a pathway towards terrorism.” However, there is no coherent analysis of why some prisoners are vulnerable to radicalisation. In my view this demonstrates a lack of ‘joined-up thinking’.

The Prevent strategy also seeks to make a clear distinction between religious belief and extremist ideology – effectively divorcing modern radical political Islam from its religious and historical roots. Ironically, it is the extremist rejection of the political legitimacy of ‘the West’, including its institutions and moral authority that can prove so attractive to a minority of prisoners who perceive themselves as having already been rejected by their own society. In essence, it is the reinforcement of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset that prevails inside prisons.
According to the Task Force report: “Our prisons house some of the most dangerous terrorists and extremists in society who have rightly been locked up for the crimes they have committed. It is not acceptable that some prisoners are able to use their time behind bars to radicalise other prisoners. We must take the opportunity of having control over this difficult and dangerous set of individuals before they are released to manage them closely, confront robustly their extremist views and disrupt their activities.”

However, I have to observe that I’ve never seen any evidence of this strategy being implemented on the ground in any of the prisons in which I served time. While I was a prisoner I discussed the challenge of radicalisation and the recruitment of vulnerable inmates by extremist groups with other cons, both Muslim and non-Muslim and we all came to the conclusion that nothing was really being done about the issue. Simply banging-up a few prisoners suspected of radicalising others down the Block (segregation units) isn’t addressing the problem either.

IS: violence and terror
Perhaps the situation is different in the high security estate (Cat-As) where most prisoners convicted of terrorist offences are likely to be held, but in lower security establishments there was no sign of any intervention or activity designed to combat extremism, so recruitment was taking place openly. Could this be yet another symptom of the current overcrowding and understaffing of our prison system?

Managing the potential risk posed by different varieties of extremism in our prisons – whether religious, political or ideological in character – is an issue that should concern us all, especially when young and otherwise vulnerable prisoners are susceptible to indoctrination of any kind. Many of these youths and men are serving relatively short sentences and will be back on street. Some – albeit a small minority – may be taking with them a range of negative, and even destructive, attitudes and beliefs that have been nurtured and allowed to flourish unchecked inside our prisons. 

To be effective, rehabilitation of ex-offenders and planning for their resettlement on release should be about much more than the basics, yet given the mounting crisis in our prisons even these crucial issues – education, housing, employment, management of drug and alcohol problems and community support for those with mental health conditions – aren’t being dealt with due to lack of resources and, frankly, rock bottom morale across the Prison Service. Tackling radicalisation or extremist views among prisoners doesn’t even seem to appear on the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) agenda at the moment, at least as far as ‘ordinary’ inmates are concerned.     

However, until the root causes that make such extreme views attractive to certain prisoners have been recognised and addressed, it’s hard to see how this challenge can be met. Too many prisoners are being released to nothing and with nowhere to go in every sense of the word. Is it really surprising that extremists and those promoting radical ideologies are stepping up to fill the void?


  1. An interesting article but not a subject I have any experience of. As far as I'm aware women in prison simply do not get radicalised as men appear to be doing so in large numbers.

    At Bronzefield we had just one woman in for what could be described as terrorism (she threw something at an MP something a large number of the populace would like to do I suspect) although I did come across one woman at Holloway who had been arrested, charged and imprisoned for alleged terrorist offences in India!

    Of course the lack of women being religiously radicalised in the same way as men are may well have something to do with most religions being highly patriarchal and the fact that most religions also tend to marginalise women so its rather difficult to get het up about an ideology that sees you as a second class citizen.

    However with the wholesale drive to slam anyone with ideologically dodgy beliefs (according to the UK government) into prison the percentage of women in jail for terrorist related offences may well increase. But I really can't see a mass uprising of women getting radicalised even so. I came across a lot of women who got god in some form whilst incarcerated. A few of these evangelical sorts tried to convert me to their belief system apparently concerned that as a pagan I was going to hell and needed my soul saving but that was a far cry from radicalisation.

    But there was no mass movement of radicalisation afoot in any female prison maybe because women find other ways of bonding or belonging that don't require joining gangs or religions cults.

    Or maybe we just have more sense!!!

    1. Thanks for your contribution. I think that radicalisation has very complex roots, but in a prison context it does take on many of the same characteristics as gangs demonstrate. Perhaps younger men (or predominantly younger males) are more desperate for role models and protective membership of such groups. In that respect, there may well be major differences in the way that males and females in custody develop social structures and relationships with each other. An interesting topic for someone's PhD thesis, maybe?

      Sadly, there is pretty compelling evidence that women can and are being radicalised by extremist groups, particularly IS. However, far fewer of those that are have so far been prosecuted in the UK and therefore their presence and influence within the prison system is minimal at the moment, although this could change in the near future as you correctly point out in your comment above.

  2. Alex, Have you read this report?

    1. Thanks for the link. Yes, I read the report shortly after it came out. I mentioned some of the statistics about accommodation problems for prisoners in a previous blog post, but it is a very important overview of the many problems our prison system in not currently managing.

  3. Hello Alex,

    Very interesting article, thank you. I am interested in your suggestions for how the government should "tackle" radicalisation in prison. I get the impression that it is unsurprising guilt ridden young Muslim men turn to religion when incarcerated. The shame of being sent to prison causes deep reflection and the desire to make amends. Finding Allah is therefore to be expected. Perhaps the solution then is to provide better religious services, an alternative process to the internal inmate led conversion?

  4. Hi Alex,
    I'm a correspondent for Fox News. We're working on a package about radicalisation in British prisons, and I read your piece above with great interest... I wondered if you had a moment to talk? 07866 796 158 /

    1. Hi Benjamin, sure. I have followed you on Twitter. Shall I call you tomorrow? Alex