British target prisons as terror incubators
Officials hope to stem radicalization by training prison imams and closely supervising proselytizers.
When Richard Reid, a young Briton from a comfortable part of suburban London, was arrested in the heated aftermath of 9/11 for trying to blow up a transatlantic plane, it raised a simple question: where did he get radicalized?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The answer was only partly to be found in his frequenting of a south London mosque. Before that, Mr. Reid had spent stretches in jail for petty crime. It was there, officials believe, that he was first steered toward radical Islam.
Now British authorities are increasingly concerned that this was no one-off. As more Islamist terrorists end up in Britain's jampacked jails, prison officers, terrorism experts, and government officials fear that such radicalization could become commonplace, making prisons a fresh focus as they tackle the lure of terrorism.
"The problem didn't exist 10 years ago, because there were no jihadi prisoners, but now it is only going to get worse," says Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King's College, London. "The government has finally woken up to this and is starting to address it."
Officials are coy about exactly what measures they are considering. They have launched plans to train dozens of prison imams to ensure they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Mentoring vulnerable prisoners is another tactic under consideration.
Aside from that, options are more controversial: grouping jihadis together to prevent proselytizing among the general prison population, close supervision of the noisiest evangelists, and better training for prison officers to alert them to tell-tale signs of radicals at work.
Prison officers say a formal strategy is required to deal with the problem. "
Some of our prisoners have extremely radical views and will use prisons as a breeding ground to try and recruit prisoners who are vulnerable," says Glyn Travis, a spokesman for the Prison Officers Association. "We are calling on the government and prison service to look at strategies to deal with extremists to ensure that prisons are safe."
Record-high prison population
Britain's prison population is at a record high, well above the capacity level of about 80,000 inmates. Though convicted terrorists at present make up a small fraction of the total prison population, with about 120 of them at present, one estimate compiled for members of Parliament forecasts that numbers will shoot up to 1,600 in the next decade.
Last year alone, there were 16 major terrorism-related trials in Britain and 42 people were convicted of offenses.