During my spell at the Ministry of Justice last year, I was allowed to visit some of Britain’s most infamous prisons. I was speechwriting for Michael Gove and his successor Liz Truss at the time, so the idea was to tour the estate and meet staff and inmates, just to get a feel of what life was like behind those high prison walls. Even with the help of policy wonks, I could hardly write speeches and briefing papers for ministers without having set foot behind bars.
It was eye-opening, as you might imagine. Above all, I came away with a huge respect for those people who work in our prisons. These are places which by their nature are very dangerous. Prison officers are not paid much to work in them, often little more than £20,000. Most work very hard and bear the scars of their work, literally. One prison governor had a permanent lump on his forehead from a scuffle with a violent inmate years earlier.
Whenever we read about some appalling murder in the papers, we are usually relieved to note that, after his trial and conviction, the killer has been locked up for 15 or 20 years – to punish and rehabilitate him, but also to keep the public safe. But out of sight means out of mind: we forget that a decade later he will still be a threat, and in need of close supervision by prison officers, round the clock. In the highest security jails – our Category As – prison officers will supervise the same inmates for long stretches of their careers. They face the risks so we don’t have to.
I learnt and saw lots during those visits, some of which I obviously can’t write about. But one of the things I can discuss is the religious identity of Britain’s prisons. There is no politically correct way of putting this: one of the things that really surprised me was just how Islamic some of the prisons felt, especially in the London area. You would hear Islamic calls to prayer in the quadrangles, echoing from some inmate’s ghettoblaster. Some of the prisons had not one prison imam, but a full-time team of them. There would be halal food, usually for the entire prison population, since that was the easiest thing to do. And there would be weekly collective worship on Fridays in the prison prayer room, sometimes full to overflowing.
All this is great, in a way. There are about 13,000 Muslim prisoners in the UK’s prisons, about 15 per cent of the overall population. As Winston Churchill said, “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.” If we have Muslim prisoners, we should let them practise their faith – in fact, we should encourage it. Not only is it the civilised and moral thing do to, but also the right kind of religious instruction and leadership might be just the thing that turns a troubled life around, and prevents reoffending when the prisoner is released. After all, 99 per cent of them will be.
But there are big risks too. A small number of Muslim prisoners are there because they have been convicted of terrorism offences. Disturbingly, prisons are the perfect place for them to prey on other vulnerable minds, recruiting others to their evil cause. A government review into Islamist extremism in prisons, published last year, found that the Islamist threat can manifest itself in numerous ways behind bars.
First, it found that there was “Muslim gang culture” in some prisons. Violence, drug-dealing and general criminality went hand in hand with it. There was support expressed for ISIS, sometimes openly. There were charismatic Islamist prisoners acting as “self-styled ‘emirs’ ”, and “exerting a controlling and radicalising influence on the wider Muslim prison population”. There was also aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam and intimidation of prison imams. The list goes on, showing how badly things had got out of control.
The solution, announced while I was at the Ministry of Justice, was new isolation units – about the nearest thing we have in this country to solitary confinement – for the most subversive Islamists. The first of these is said to be up and running. Last week the Sunday Times revealed that the Islamist hate preacher Anjem Choudary – once a favourite guest of the BBC and linked to 100 jihadist cases – has been dispatched to one at HMP Frankland in County Durham. Totally separated from the mainstream prison population, he won’t be able to preach his twisted views to other inmates.
There’s just a small catch. This very dangerous man’s sentence was, astonishingly, only five and half years. He’ll be free before long. The greatest challenge the prison service faces with these Islamists now is to make them changed men before they are let out again.
Whatever the strengths of the system, if they don’t change, we’ll all suffer.