On Aug. 22, the United Kingdom’s National Offender Management Service released a summary of the main findings of a review of Islamist extremism (IE) in the United Kingdom’s criminal justice system.
The report identified several threats IE posed in the British prison system, such as a Muslim gang culture that encouraged and directed violence, drug trafficking and other forms of criminality.
In addition to being a threat to prison staff and the wider prison population, the report found that self-styled emirs — Arab leaders or governors — and imams — Islamic worship leaders who conduct religious services at British prisons — exerted an aggressive and radical influence over the Muslim prison population.
The report pushed several possible solutions to the issue. For example, the report suggested that IE prisoners be separated from the general prison population, and that an increased focus should be placed on controlling the influx of IE ideas through radical texts and imams. While the solutions presented are a good first step toward curtailing IE, more attention should be given to how prisons are structured, both in their size and in their culture.
Understandably, the decision to segregate religious extremists in prisons has garnered a great deal of attention, with people coming out in both support and opposition. Those who support this move often argue that by segregating extremists, the UK is thinning the pool of potential recruits for groups like ISIS.
This is absolutely true; prisons are extremely fertile grounds for recruitment. Several of the individuals involved in the high profile attacks in Paris and Brussels spent time in prison, where they likely were radicalized.
Short-term solutions to addressing extremism have been tried in the UK before, and resulted in a powder keg ready to blow. During The Troubles, a period of ethnonationalist violence between the Irish and the British, the UK housed Irish paramilitary personnel in a supposedly inescapable prison known as the HM Prison Maze. However, in 1983, 38 armed Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners escaped.
One hundred PIRA members were to aid in transporting the escapees, but there was a five minute miscalculation, so many escapees fled on foot or in hijacked vehicles. Many were able to reach Irish strongholds and join back into the conflict.
Without a doubt, the fact that these prisoners were placed into their own separate prison community bolstered their ability to organize their escape efforts. While an event like this is less likely to occur in present-day UK, segregating extremists is not without its risks. New networks are established in this climate, and pre-existing ones could very well be strengthened.
American prisons have tried a similar strategy of prison segregation by removing gang leaders from the general prison population. This, too, is a short term solution, as voids left in the gang structure are quickly filled.
The strategies used by both American and British prisons to suppress large criminal organizations share the same failure. By segregating gang leaders and extremists, we fall into a trap of creating romanticized visions of prison culture, where a small number of charismatic individuals are responsible for creating large organizations. Rather, we should analyze the underlying conditions that would give rise to these type of groups.
“The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System” by David Skarbek explains how prior to the 1960s, inmates relied on a set of norms known as the “convict code” to maintain order. This code contained commands such as “don’t rat out other convicts” and “don’t steal from another convict.” This code was able to maintain some semblance of order until the prison population experienced a boom in the 1960s. It has increased exponentially since then, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Prisoners Series.
Full data on American incarceration rates can be found in this list of reports. To see the data in a more digestible manner, you can examine the first graph in this fact sheet provided by The Sentencing Project, which was made with the data from the Prisoners Series.
Prisoners followed the convict code in order to establish a reputation as a respectable person. But when prison populations boomed, it became impossible to track an individual’s reputation in the new sea of faces, and the code became useless. An individual could break the code and avoid repercussions because they became a face in a crowd rather than a member of a small community. Turning away from the convict code, prisoners began to adapt and form prison gangs in order to protect themselves.
The UK prison system is beginning to experience a similar increase in its prison population. According to a report conducted by Grahame Allen and Noel Dempsey, the UK prison population has increased sharply in recent decades, particularly spiking in the 1990s. We could very well be seeing a similar type of change in the prison community structure that occurred in the United States, which creates an environment where inmates feel compelled to join groups, like gangs or extremist organizations, in order to survive.
Rather than creating ideological islands of prisoners, a solution that strikes the heart of the issue would be to create smaller prisons. In a smaller community, inmates would have less of a reason to band together in larger groups.
The convict code could very well be revitalized in a setting such as this. In addition to promoting safety in prisons, creating these smaller populations could weaken already existing extremist networks that use prisons as recruitment pipelines. Rethinking the prison system in the UK could help allay the fears of Islamic extremism that is permeating the UK, along with several other European countries.