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This Commons Library briefing describes how the Government is seeking to tackle extremism and, in particular, radicalisation in prisons.

It examines

  • The difference between faith and radicalisation
  • Why people become radicalised
  • What is happening within prisons
  • How radicalisation is being countered in prisons and
  • Whether the National Offender Management Service is doing enough.

Faith, radicalisation and extremism

Faith, radicalisation and extremism are different things. Many prisoners enter prison with a faith and others find one while in prison.  Few of these prisoners will be “radicalised” or become involved in extremism or terrorist activity, although (obviously) those that do present huge challenges to the authorities.

Peer-to-peer radicalisation within prisons has been identified as one factor fuelling extremism, not just in the UK but around the globe, and so combatting radicalisation in prisons is one strand of the Government’s counter-extremism strategy-y. The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is reviewing how it deals with extremism in prisons and its report is expected later this year.

Are prisons fomenting radicalisation and extremism?

A study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College, London in 2010 examined the evidence from 15 countries about how people could be radicalised or reformed in prison.

The report of the study pointed out that prisons could play both a positive and negative role, in tackling problems of radicalisation and terrorism yet also being places of vulnerability. It was no surprise, the report said, that prisons were breeding grounds for radicalisation, as they provided near-perfect conditions for radical ideologies to flourish:

This should come as no surprise. Prisons are ‘places of vulnerability’, which produce ‘identity seekers’, ‘protection seekers’ and ‘rebels’ in greater numbers than other environments. They provide near-perfect conditions in which radical, religiously framed ideologies can flourish. While the extent of the problem remains unclear, the potential for prison radicalisation is significant, and the issue clearly needs to be addressed.

Again, the report of the study remarked that religious conversion was not the same as radicalisation. In its conclusions, the report argued that prisons matter and it was important to gain a better understanding of their role in radicalising people and reforming them. Overcrowding and under-staffing could (the report went on) exacerbate the problem.  The emphasis on “security first” had (it suggested) meant missed opportunities to promote reform and prisons should be more ambitious and innovative in promoting positive influences. 

The argument about whether prisons are fomenting radicalisation and extremism was aired again in 2012 in the Times.  Maajid Nawaz, founding chairman of the Quilliam Foundation – which describes itself as “the world’s first counter-extremism think tank set up to  address the unique challenges of citizenship, identity and belonging in a globalised world” – argued that British prisons were “forcing houses of Islamist extremism”.  The Prison Service (he said) needed to wake up.  In reply, the junior justice minister at the time, Crispin Blunt, dismissed Maajid Nawaz’s claims as partial and sensationalist:

Maajid Nawaz, of the Quilliam Foundation, takes a partial approach to extremism and radicalisation in prisons.


I am not complacent about the risks, but to describe our prisons as “forcing houses of Islamist extremism” is sensationalist and not backed by evidence.

Ministers have recently reiterated their determination to deal with radicalisation in prisons. The junior minister for prisons, probation and rehabilitation, Andrew Selous, said in January 2016 that “as the threat evolves, we evolve our response”. On the same day, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, described radicalisation as a “genuine danger”:

Radicalisation in prison is a genuine danger not just in England, but across the European Union. (…) Those who seek to radicalise and to inject the poison of Islamism into the minds of young men need to be countered every step of the way.

The review of radicalisation in prisons

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) is conducting a review of radicalisation in prisons. The review is being led by a former prison governor, Ian Acheson.

In November last year, following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, described how the review of radicalisation in prisons connected with the Prevent strategy:

Of course the Prevent duty we have introduced covers prisons as well as other public sector institutions. (…) My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security will soon be meeting the prisons Minister to talk about exactly these issues, because we do recognise that we need to look at what is happening in prisons and ensure that we are taking every possible step to reduce the potential for radicalisation.

In January this year, David Cameron said that prisons should be a place where people were deradicalised, not made worse:

It is very disturbing that, when people are in our care and when the state is looking after them, on some occasions, they have been radicalised because of what they have heard in prison either from other prisoners, or on occasion, from visiting imams. We need to sort this situation out.

In her statement to the Commons following the terrorist attacks in Brussels in March 2016, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, spoke again of challenging “the twisted narratives that support terrorism” and leading vulnerable people away from radicalisation.

In another speech in February 2016, this time on prison reform, David Cameron suggested that a new approach might be needed to deal with prisoners identified as extremist or vulnerable to extremism:

And I want to be clear: I am prepared to consider major changes: from the imams we allow to preach in prison to changing the locations and methods for dealing with prisoners convicted of terrorism offences, if that is what is required.

Context: The Government’s counter-extremism strategy

The Government’s counter-extremism strategy was published in October 2015.  In it, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, pointed to the threat posed by extremism and (he argued) the need to confront intolerance.  He pointed to various forms of extremism and called the fight against Islamist extremism “one of the great struggles of our generation”.

He accused previous governments of having made poor choices:

In the past, I believe governments made the wrong choice. Whether in the face of Islamist or neo-Nazi extremism, we were too tolerant of intolerance, too afraid to cause offence. We seemed to lack the strength and resolve to stand up for what is right, even when the damage being done by extremists was all too clear.

In discussing the threat from extremism, the counter-extremism strategy remarked that peer-to-peer radicalisation could be a particular problem. There were (it said) 1,000 prisoners whose behaviour in custody raised concerns about extremism:

And a much wider group of offenders [than those convicted of or remanded for terrorist offences or holding extremist views] are vulnerable to those promoting extremist ideologies while in prison. Peer-to-peer radicalisation is a particular concern, as is the activity of groups such as Al-Muhajiroun which has specifically targeted prisoners and those on probation.

Prisoners, it remarked, could be susceptible to extremist ideologies and so the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had launched a full review of how prisons deal with Islamist extremism:

The Secretary of State for Justice has commissioned a full review into the overall approach to dealing with Islamist extremism in prisons, and findings will be reported to him in 2016. The review is looking at the nature and extent of the threat in prisons, current capabilities to manage that threat, including the management of high-risk offenders, and what we can learn from international best practice.

The Prevent strategy, part of the Government’s wider counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST, seeks to deal with those individuals and groups promoting division and hatred, and with the factors that predispose individuals or groups to respond to terrorist ideologies. Inherited from the previous Labour government, the strategy was recast in 2011 under the Coalition government, to separate out the community based integration work from the more direct counter-terrorism activities.

Under Prevent, public sector organisations are subject to a duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This duty was placed on a statutory footing by the Counter-terrorism and Security Act 2015, together with guidance setting out how different sectors should play their part in implementing the strategy.

Other Commons Library briefings on prisons, counter-extremism and terrorism are available on Parliament’s topic pages for prisons and terrorism.

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