Anjem Choudary, like many other imprisoned extremists and terrorists, is fortunately no longer able to exert the same influence on society. Rightly however, many have raised concerns over his potential influence on other inmates whilst in prison. Can prisons effectively challenge extremist perspectives, or do they incubate and encourage them to spread? How should we deal those who, like Choudary, are able to persuade and recruit individuals towards an extremist, and in some cases violent, mindset?
The British prison system currently deals with high-security terrorism convicts by sending them to dispersal prisons. These prisoners are distributed around six maximum security dispersal jails, and are regularly transferred from one to another. This is done to prevent them from establishing close relationships with other inmates, with the aim of decreasing the likelihood of radicalisation.
Increased fear over the proliferation of extremist literature, narratives and ideologies in prisons has led the former head of the National Counter Terrorism Office, Chris Phillips, to issue a warning over the expansion of Islamism in the current UK prison system.
In 2006, De Schie prison in Rotterdam created a special Terrorism unit concealed in the prison's top floor. Here, prisoners deemed capable of radicalising others were kept in an isolated unit. On reviewing this system, the UK is now planning to develop isolation units that segregate extremist leaders from the rest of the prison population. Although at face value this seems an effective way of curtailing the spread of radicalisation, it does not challenge those in confinement that already hold extreme views. Simply segregating extremist leaders may also have unintended consequences, allowing extremist groups to strengthen their hierarchical structures and organisational capacity.
In order to investigate how different prisons deal with the issue of radicalisation, Professor Peter R. Neumann at The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) conducted an extensive review of radicalisation in prisons across 15 different countries. He concludes that in prioritising security concerns over the potential to reform and re-integrate radicalised individuals, a valuable opportunity is overlooked to utilise innovative de-radicalisation approaches with extremist prisoners.
Shane Bryans, an ex-prison governor and criminal justice expert has rightly pointed out that although de-radicalisation programmes are currently operating on a small scale, they are the most effective when used in a "safe, secure and well managed custodial setting in which the human rights of prisoners are respected."
Furthermore, lawyer Andre Seebregts has argued that the Dutch system is counter-productive, finding that many prisoners he spoke to in these units had little to no interest of re-integrating with Dutch society. Published by The Global Counter-Terrorism Forum, The Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders highlights the importance of contextualising, analysing and examining each individual case in order to appropriately assess how to tackle their extremist ideology.
The ICSR's findings point towards a need to expand effective de-radicalisation and re-integration programmes. This would maximise prisons' potential as secure centres for reform and de-radicalisation. Combining de-radicalisation initiatives with specialist units for extremist prisoners can result in a more well-rounded solution: one where prevention and de-radicalisation can occur alongside each other. Furthermore, as Neumann notes, approaches must be contextualised within each social group, as there cannot be one universal approach to tackle radicalisation in prisons.
Proponents of extremist narratives have innovated in their recruitment style, approach and methodology and we should do the same. Choudary was able to tap into the hearts and minds of people who felt disengaged with society, aided and abetted by the platform provided to him by the media. This must not be allowed to occur during his incarceration.
Although there can be no universal strategy that is applicable to every different form of extremism, prisons need improvement. Isolation may be an effective way of preventing radicalisation, but it does not solve the root of the problem - the disengagement with society that leads people to become vulnerable to these toxic narratives.
The best source of innovation is, therefore, a combination of security and preventative measures, and de-radicalisation and re-integration initiatives. Equipping the right people with the necessary tools and confidence to be able to approach and begin to challenge extremist ideology and indoctrination is essential. Prisons should become a place where reform is prioritised, not a space that potentially benefits the same organisations we wish to combat. As Abu Ahmed, a senior ISIS official noted when describing his experience at Bucca, an American jail in Iraq, "If there was no American prison in Iraq, there would be no IS now. Bucca was a factory. It made us all. It built our ideology."