Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM

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When WILL we wake up to the threat from radical Islamists in our jail system?

Apr 28, 2022

The purpose of prison is to punish, writes former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons PETER CLARKE

This article first appeared in the Daily Mail of 28 April 2022.

Convicted Islamist terrorists seizing ‘control’ of prison wings and setting up sharia courts. Staff terrified of confronting Muslim inmates for fear of being accused of racism.

Devout prisoners dictating the diets of fellow non-Muslim prisoners, and even appointing their own ‘emirs’ — unofficial leaders — to whom prison officers appeal to maintain order.

Terrorism In Prisons, the bombshell report published yesterday by Jonathan Hall QC, certainly makes disturbing reading.

It explains how Islamist extremists have, in some places, begun operating what resembles a parallel prison system within the one sanctioned by the state and paid for by us.

For some of us, however, the report’s revelations are all too familiar. As Chief Inspector of Prisons from 2016-2020, I saw for myself the prison system’s widespread failure to deal properly with committed Islamist extremists.

Terrorism In Prisons, the bombshell report published yesterday by Jonathan Hall QC, explains how Islamist extremists have, in some places, begun operating what resembles a parallel prison system within the one sanctioned by the state and paid for by us

And as a former Head of Counter-Terrorism for the Metropolitan Police, I had witnessed first-hand where that murderous ideology can lead.

The purpose of prison is to punish — and to lessen the risk of prisoners creating more victims after their release.

Failure to focus on this goal can have tragic and terrible consequences. Take Usman Khan.

Less than a year after being released from jail for terrorist offences, in November 2019 this fanatic murdered two students at an event held at London’s Fishmongers’ Hall, as part of a Cambridge University-sponsored prisoner rehabilitation conference.

The resulting inquest exposed a catalogue of failures from virtually every organisation involved with the management and monitoring of Khan, up to and following his release from prison.

Throughout his sentence, Khan proved a disruptive and violent individual. His prison record alone ran to more than 2,000 pages. He tried to radicalise other prisoners and mixed with convicted terrorists.

A man like that should have had no near-term chance of being released.

Yet though prison imams claimed Khan had ‘made more progress than we could have hoped for’, a prison psychologist saw through his lies.

In an observation that should shame those who sanctioned the terrorist’s release, this psychologist said that the risk Khan posed was likely made worse by the company he was keeping in prison — and that the risk could increase when he was at large again.

Unlike the IRA and other paramilitary groups to whom MI5 and counter-terrorist police were more accustomed, Islamist terrorists have no interest in being part of a political process.

Tragically, of course, that proved to be the case: Khan’s victims, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, paid the ultimate price.

Last year, I wrote a report on Khan’s case for the British think-tank Policy Exchange. I wondered how Khan could have spent ‘his entire adult life in an environment where he mixed with other terrorists and was disruptive and violent [yet could also have] successfully pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes as to the danger he really posed’.

Khan should have been the wake-up call the prison system needed — yet this week’s report shows that far more work has to be done.

The issue of Islamist extremism in British prisons goes back a long way. As far back as 2015, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, commissioned a former prison governor, Ian Acheson, to report to him on the subject.

Acheson echoed what law enforcement and the intelligence agencies had been saying for over a decade — that imprisoned Islamist terrorists need a fundamentally different approach. They are not ordinary criminals — and not even ordinary terrorists.

Unlike the IRA and other paramilitary groups to whom MI5 and counter-terrorist police were more accustomed, Islamist terrorists have no interest in being part of a political process.

They do not care whether they are killed or captured — their only goal is to cause mass deaths and casualties.

Acheson’s diagnosis was spot on. One of his key recommendations, accepted by the government, was that there should be ‘separation centres’ for prisoners — like Khan — who presented a risk to other prisoners, prison staff and the public on release.

Eventually three of these centres were set up — ‘prisons within prisons’ to isolate the most influential radicals from other inmates.

Yet soon after I became HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, I received negative briefings about the report from the Prison Service — which seemed resistant to its recommendations from the start.

When Gove accepted 68 of Acheson’s 69 recommendations, the Prison Service produced a slimmed-down version of the report, reducing those recommendations to 11, and then stating an intention to implement just eight of them. By that time, Gove had moved on.

Last year I was told that — shockingly — only five prisoners were being held in Acheson’s recommended ‘separation centres’.

The process to refer prisoners to such centres was made so complicated that it was difficult to get anyone into them.

That was confirmed still further when I wanted to inspect these centres. I asked to see a copy of Acheson’s report, but senior officials refused to allow this, only relenting when the then prisons minister intervened.

This bureaucratic resistance to vital and necessary changes to the prison system must be overcome.

The Prison Service should also look carefully at the evidence given to the Fishmongers’ Hall inquest by former prisoner John Crilly. He was one of those at the event who bravely chased and tackled Usman Khan on London Bridge following his attack.

Crilly revealed that while serving his sentence alongside Islamist terrorists, a number of attempts had been made to convert him to their beliefs.

As he explained: ‘They just want numbers. They will allow sex offenders [transferred] off sex offenders’ wings to come on to the main wings as long as they convert, so they’ll forgive anything just to get numbers.’

Crilly insisted that though the prison authorities knew who the ringleaders were, Islamist gangs enforced their operation within prisons by violence and threats.

There is no reason why Muslim prisoners should not be able to freely practise their religion within prison, any more than followers of any other faith.

But a completely new structure for managing terrorist prisoners is badly overdue. Separation centres should be used unsparingly to isolate the most extreme and intractable cases.

Prison staff must be made more confident to deal with these dangerous and fanatical prisoners — and prisoners must understand what is reasonable and necessary to let them practise their faith, and what is not.

I believe the Prison Service suffers from what you might call ‘institutional timidity’. Frightened of being accused of ‘Islamophobia’ and racism, it has not taken the necessary steps to stop radicalised prisoners from spreading their dangerous ideology among other inmates.

Jonathan Hall QC has pointed out the truth: that the Prison Service’s approach to Islamist terrorists is woefully inadequate. Unless we act — and fast — on his concerns, further tragedies await us.

Peter Clarke is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and is the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM

Senior Fellow Read Full Bio

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