A review of radicalisation in jails in England and Wales may support putting all Islamist terrorists into one unit to stop them preying on weak inmates- a move which one prisons expert has said carried too many risks.
The terrorists would be locked up together in one “jihadi jail”, but the move would reverse a 50-year policy in which dangerous inmates are dispersed around eight jails.
Former soldiers could also be called up to teach young offenders in new boarding school secure units, the author of the plans has toldThe Times.
Charlie Taylor, the government’s adviser on youth justice, who has recommended the schools as part of a review, said that he wanted the armed forces to be involved and for retired soldiers to teach youngsters and the schools to run their own cadet corps.
The proposal to hold terrorists separately has been suggested in discussions as part of a review ordered by Michael Gove and carried out by Ian Acheson, a former prison governor.
A Whitehall source said: “Michael Spurr [the head of the National Offender Management Service] is concerned that Acheson is going to come to the wrong conclusion”.
The prospect of putting all 131 Islamist terrorists in one place and separating them from other inmates was hinted at by the prime minister this week.
He said that about 1,000 prisoners have been identified as extremists or vulnerable to extremism and that some were preying on the weak and forcing prisoners to convert to Islam. “I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in our prisons to changing locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required,” Mr Cameron said.
In 1966 Earl Mountbatten of Burma recommended building a “super max” prison for all dangerous prisoners following the escape of the spy George Blake. Then, and in 1994 when a similar plan was proposed, it was rejected.
One prison source said: “If we could identify extremists spreading the wrong messages it would be a good idea to hold them separately to stop them having the opportunity of infecting other inmates with their views”.
The source said that it would be better to hold them together in separate units or wings in existing jails but that the prison service must retain the capacity to move them around.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The justice secretary has asked the department to review its approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in prisons. This is being supported by external expertise and sits alongside the cross-government work currently under way on developing de-radicalisation programmes.”
Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales, and Converse the national prisons newspaper, said he thought the risks far outweighed the benefits.
Mr Leech said: “The Dispersal System has worked fine for half a century, concentration which is its polar opposite, has far too many risks both in terms of theory and practice.
“Concentration in one unit such as that at Belmarsh, or one prison even, could provide a focal point for unrest and it will inevitably provoke allegations that it was a British Guantanamo – and where do you put them when you lose control of the unit; no one can say that would never happen, and we have to face the prospect of where we go with it if and when it does.
“There is also a very real danger that staff in such units are vulnerable to “conditioning” and can be intimidated, as happened before when six prisoners including IRA members broke out of the special secure unit at Whitemoor jail in 1994 leading the Learmont and Woodcock reports, staff would have to be rotated regularly, at least every three months, and there is also a real risk that prisoners in there may see it as some kind of misguided badge of honour.
“I see the benefits of keeping them all in one unit, away from the general population, but in reality I think the risks far outweigh them and the case is a long way from being made out for change.”
Dangerous prisoners including terrorists are held in eight dispersal jails which allows staff to move them around, preventing them from creating gangs and command structures.