AUSTIN, Texas — British and French prisons may soon employ controversial methods like solitary confinement and ‘terrorist-only’ units in an effort to curb radicalization efforts in prisons and to keep inmates from turning to terrorism.
Compared to their overall populations, England, Wales and France disproportionately imprison Muslims. A study conducted in March 2015 found that the number of Muslim prisoners in English and Welsh prisons increased 122 percent between 2002 and 2014, while the total number of prisoners only increased 20 percent over the same time period.
And although French laws prevent an exact count of Muslims in prison, it’s estimated that as many as 70 percent of the country’s 67,500 prisoners are Muslim.
In July, Anjem Choudary, a self-styled Muslim preacher living in Britain, was convicted of supporting Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the terrorist group commonly known in the West as ISIS or ISIL). His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 6, and he faces up to 10 years in prison. Choudary’s conviction highlighted concerns from some in government that he and others like him could spread extremist philosophies to the rest of the general prison population.
A recent report by the British Ministry of Justice raised the alarm about the problem of terrorist recruiting in prison, including revealing evidence of a flourishing “Muslim gang culture” and swelling support for Daesh in prisons. As a result, there’s growing talk of creating special units modeled after Dutch prisons which take those prisoners who are on remand for, or already convicted of, terrorism-related charges out of the general prison population.
However, these units, which would be filled based on religious profiling efforts, could “provide a focal point for public protests and claims of a ‘British Guantanamo,’” as The Guardian’s Rajeev Syal reported on Aug. 22. Further, they could actually serve to strengthen dangerous groups, rather than curb their growth.
“The experience at the Maze prison in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, where republican and loyalist prisoners organised themselves along military lines and ran their respective H-blocks, is often cited as the main argument against a separatist solution,” Syal reported.
Another plan proposed by the Ministry of Justice would see certain inmates — particularly, those deemed most dangerous — constantly shuffled between isolation units in different prisons, The Guardian also reported on Aug. 22.
But while keeping prisoners on the move has a long history, known colloquially in the United Kingdom as the “magic roundabout” or the “shared misery circuit,” and as “Diesel Therapy” in the United States, the practice carries with it considerable human rights concerns. Prisoners in transit can spend hours on buses with poor climate control, and they are often kept shackled in order to prevent anything but the most limited range of motion.
Similarly, long-term solitary confinement can do severe harm to prisoners’ mental health. The United Nations has repeatedly raised concerns about the use of solitary confinement in the U.S., and argued that its use should be limited to 15 days or less.
In February, France began creating separate “anti-radicalization” units for prisoners suspected of harboring terrorist sympathies. According to a report from The Guardian, these units focus on providing education and cultural alternatives to terrorism.
“The routine for these men will include theatre workshops, political discussions and lessons in the prison school – reading and writing for the barely literate, Japanese for the intellectually advanced,“ Christopher de Bellaigue reported in March.
In an Aug 22. editorial, The Guardian’s editorial board warned of the drawbacks of strategies like “magic roundabouts” and separate units.
“None of these courses of action is a guaranteed success,” they wrote. “None of them is cheap. Each is further complicated by the need to apply the strategy to [prisoners awaiting trial], young prisoners and women.”
Ultimately, they argued that solutions to the problem of terrorism and extremism must come from outside prison walls:
“Prisons will never provide the solution to the problem … That lies outside the prisons, not inside them. It will be the work of generations. But it is right to expect the prisons not to make the problem worse.”
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