Separating Extremist Prisoners:
A process study of separation centres in England and Wales
from a staff perspective

This report presents findings of a process study of the set up and early implementation of two Separation Centres (SCs) within the high security prison estate in England and Wales. 

The centres allow greater separation and specialist management of influential extremists who wield the greatest influence over other prisoners. The process study used qualitative methods to obtain staff and stakeholder views of how the centres had been set up and were operating and whether there were any early indicators that the centres were achieving their intended outcome of containing the risk of ‘radicalisation’ and reducing risk in the main prison population.

Five fieldwork visits were carried out to the centres at different time points in their implementation and a total of 92 interviews with staff members involved in the development and/or delivery of SCs or key stakeholders were conducted.  In addition, 36 interviews were carried out with staff at establishments from where the men had been removed to explore any impact of their removal.  Detailed field notes were taken that were transcribed and analysed using thematic analysis.

There were a number of limitations to the study and these should be noted when interpreting findings. As with all qualitative research, the views of those interviewed were subjective and may not be representative of all staff at the establishments and all key stakeholders. However, as sample sizes were large and drawn from a range of staff and stakeholder disciplines, a wide range of viewpoints were gathered. The SCs had only been established and running for a relatively short period of time during fieldwork and this should be considered when interpreting findings, especially perceived impact. Finally, it is important to note that the men who had been separated declined to engage in interviews or surveys for the study, so the researchers were unable to obtain their views on the centres.

Key Findings

Respondents reported that two well-run centres had been successfully set up, despite some early teething problems.

The key successes of the implementation included the recruitment and retention of highly competent, motivated and experienced officers and multi-disciplinary teams to work on the centres; a comprehensive regime; structured and effective communication systems and the development of a system for monitoring progression. It was widely viewed, by those interviewed, that the centres had successfully separated some of the most influential extremist offenders from the mainstream prison population.

There was some suggestion that this had helped to reduce disruption at their previous locations, although it is challenging to empirically measure the direct impact of removing these individuals.

The lack of engagement by the men, especially in rehabilitation and disengagement interventions, was identified as a significant challenge in the running of the centres.

Areas for improvement and lessons learned were also identified from the staff interviews; some of which have now been addressed by the centres.

These included the need for a review and refinement of the referral process (including examination of lower than expected numbers of referrals); greater support for Imams working on the centres; the importance of a standard and consistent regime to be delivered across all centres; a clearer progression and/or deselection route identified (including where an individual does not engage); consideration of the possible long term impact of separation on mental health.

Consideration should also be given to those who are separated, including the separation of gang affiliated offenders and those supporting other causes, such as Extreme Right Wing.

This qualitative study provides insight from staff and stakeholders into the set up and early implementation of SCs. Further work would need to be considered to assess delivery once sufficient time has passed to allow sustainable practices to embed into the operation of the centres.

Read the Report