islamic extremism
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Tackling extremism in prisons

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Acheson report on Islamic extremism in prisons recommends holding extremists in specialist units, crackdown on literature & tightened vetting of chaplains.

Update – July 2017

The MoJ announced today (6 July 2017), that radical extremist prisoners were moved into the first of three “jihadi jail” separation units at HMP Frankland last week. Two other centres, which are expected to be at HMP Full Sutton near York and at HMP Long Lartin in Worcestershire, are due to open in the coming months and the three centres together will hold up to 28 of the most subversive extremist prisoners in the system.

Offenders are placed in the specialist centres if they are involved in planning terrorism or are considered to pose a risk to national security. Those seeking to influence others to commit terrorist crimes, or whose extremist views are purposely undermining good order and security in the prison estate, may also be placed in the centre.

This was one of the central recommendations of the Acheson report, originally published nearly a year ago.

Acheson report

Yesterday (22 August 2016) the Ministry of Justice published a summary of Ian Acheson’s review of Islamist extremism (IE) in prisons, probation and youth justice. The full report hasn’t been published for reasons of public security.

The accompanying press release summarised the main recommendations which include extremists being held in ‘specialist units’, a crackdown on extremist literature and tightened vetting of prison chaplains.

Landmark review

The MoJ says that governors and prison officers will be given the training, skills and authority needed to prevent influential extremist prisoners exerting control and radicalising others. This follows a landmark review, published today, looking at the risks posed by Islamist extremists in prisons.

Prison officers, on the front line, will be equipped to crack down on extremist behaviour. They will be supported by a new directorate for Security, Order and Counter-Terrorism, responsible for monitoring and dealing with this evolving threat.

Governors have also been instructed to ban extremist literature and to remove anyone from Friday prayers who is promoting anti-British beliefs or other dangerous views.

The most dangerous Islamist extremists will be removed from the general prison population and held in ‘specialist units’ in the high security estate.

islamic extremism2

Main threats

The main threats identified in the report were:

  • Muslim gang culture and the consequent violence, drug trafficking and criminality inspired or directed by these groups;
  • TACT offenders advocating support for Daesh and threats against staff and other prisoners;
  • charismatic IE prisoners acting as self-styled ‘emirs’ and exerting a controlling and radicalising influence on the wider Muslim prison population;
  • aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam;
  • unsupervised collective worship, sometimes at Friday Prayers including pressure on supervising staff to leave the prayer room;
  • attempts by IE prisoners to engineer segregation by landing, by wing, or even by prison;
  • attempts to prevent staff searches by claiming dress is religious;
  • books and educational materials promoting extremist literature available in chaplaincy libraries or held by individual prisoners;
  • intimidation of prison Imams;
  • exploitation of staff fear of being labelled racist; and
  • abuse of ‘Rule 39’ (which protects the confidentiality of correspondence between prisoners and their legal correspondents).

Lack of confidence in challenging unacceptable extremist behaviour and views was highlighted as a key concern across the prison estate, resulting in reluctance to confront extremist views.


Key measures to be implemented include:

  • creating a new directorate for Security, Order and Counter-Terrorism, which will deliver a plan for countering extremism in prisons and probation services
  • instructing governors to remove extremist literature and putting in place a thorough process to assess materials of concern
  • boosting plans for rapid responses by intervention teams to terrorist-related incidents
  • improving extremism prevention training for all prison officers
  • strengthening vetting of prison chaplains and a range of positions to make sure the right people are in place in prisons to counter extremist beliefs

Justice Secretary rejects thee recommendations

Alan Travis (@alantravis40) of the Guardian reports that Justice Secretary Liz Truss has rejected three of the 11 recommendations made by Acheson:

Acheson’s proposal to ban attendance at the Friday prayers inside prisons by those who disrupt or abuse faith activity and to use innovative technology to provide an in-cell alternative has been rejected. The official response says governors can already ban subversive prisoners from Friday prayers and they do not want to “alter the provision of worship more generally or, for example, to pursue in-cell alternatives”.

Truss has also rejected Acheson’s first recommendation calling for an independent advisor on counter-terrorism in prisons, accountable directly to the justice secretary and responsible for an over-arching counter-extremism strategy. It is thought that Acheson himself might have been a candidate for this role, and Truss makes clear she want to use existing expertise “rather than relying on the appointment of a further independent adviser”.

A third recommendation calling for a review of rule 39 correspondence is also rejected. The justice ministry says the evidence of the past year is that attempted abuses of this rule have almost always been by prisoners and their criminal associates rather than lawyers.

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