London — Convicts in British prisons who preach terrorism and extreme ideology to fellow inmates will be held in high-security “specialist units,” the government announced on Monday, amid efforts to crack down on Islamic radicalization in jails.
The announcement reflects an emerging trend in Europe to isolate terrorism convicts and influential extremists from the rest of the prison population. Prisons are often regarded as potential breeding grounds for would-be terrorists, particularly for young offenders serving sentences for crimes unrelated to terrorism but who nonetheless fall under the spell of older, charismatic inmates.
Last week, Anjem Choudary, one of Britain’s best-known Islamist activists, was found guilty of inviting support for the Islamic State. He could face a lengthy prison term.
“There are a small number of individuals, very subversive individuals, who do need to be held in separate units,” Elizabeth Truss, who took office last month as justice secretary and who made the announcement, told the BBC. Under the plan, prison wardens, or governors, will also be instructed to remove extremist literature and tighten the vetting of prison chaplains.
The announcement was in response to a government review of Islamist extremism in prisons, a summary of which was also published on Monday.
The review, led by a former prison governor, Ian Acheson, recommended placing in specialist units a “small subset of extremists who present a particular and enduring risk to national security through subversive behavior, beliefs and activities.”
Antiterrorism legislation passed after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, which killed 56 people, including four bombers, criminalized “those who glorify terrorism, those involved in acts preparatory to terrorism and those who advocated it without being directly involved,” the review noted.
The review identified the ways that Islamist extremism could manifest itself in prison, including gang culture, terrorism convicts who advocate support for the Islamic State, and charismatic prisoners “acting as self-styled ‘emirs.’ ”
“Aggressive encouragement of conversions to Islam, unsupervised collective worship, attempts to prevent staff searches by claiming dress is religious, intimidation of prison imams, and exploitation of staff for fear of being labeled racist” are also indicators, according to the review.
It concluded that “cultural sensitivity” by prison staff members toward Muslim inmates inhibited the jailers’ ability to challenge extremist views and behavior.
In the late 1990s, Britain used a “policy of dispersal” aimed at convicted members of the Irish Republican Army, according to the government. But they were relatively few in number and had little influence on other prisoners. Since then, that policy has not been changed in response to the threat from Islamist extremism, the government said.
The authors of the review said they had visited prisons in the Netherlands, France and Spain, which also isolate extremists from the mainstream prison population and keep them in high-security conditions.
This year, the French authorities introduced a program in at least five prisons that placed selected extremists and terrorism convicts in separate blocks, usually involving groups of 20.
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, an organization based in London, said prisoners should not be permanently kept in small, isolated units. “The goal must be to get people back into the main prison community, so that changes in their behavior can be observed,” he said. “Anything else is just storing up an even more difficult problem for when they are eventually released.”
Muslim prison chaplains also need the government’s full support, Mr. Dawson said. “They are part of the solution, not the problem.”