The issue of radicalisation in prison is defined and represented by the media and politicians as a relatively contemporary phenomenon associated with the rise of Islamic extremism post 9/11. The narrative is familiarly one-dimensional and public protection orientated: young, mostly black and Asian prisoners are being brainwashed by hardened Muslim extremist prisoners and fashioned into potential terrorists and fanatics. The number of newly converted Muslim prisoners has apparently increased dramatically, now numbering some 12 thousand, and in some jails, allegedly, the balance of power between prison staff and “Muslim gangs” has shifted dangerously to the advantage of the latter. The issue or question of prison radicalisation is, in the opinion of the media and political establishment, linked inextricably to the rise of Islamic extremism throughout global society generally with no contextual explanation or cause within the reality of prison itself or the treatment of prisoners.
In fact, the political or religious radicalisation of prisoners has many historical antecedents, especially in the U.S, and is a phenomenon created and influenced not just by prisoner peer group pressure or the alleged brainwashing activities of dominant and manipulative extremist prisoners; it is a transformative experience primarily influenced by forces of alienation and exclusion, and intrinsically linked to the life experience of the radicalised.
Prisons have always been sites of potential radicalisation (Malcolm X once described them as “universities of revolution”) and during the 1960s and 1970s a veritable wave of political radicalisation swept through the prison systems of the U.S. and Western Europe that found form and expression in prisoner's unions, revolutionary organisations and uprisings that were vocalised in the language of class struggle and radical politics. This movement also created a whole genre of radical prison literature, especially in the U.S., that politicised the whole prison experience and viewed it through the prison of social and political repression. Racism, in particular, focused the anger and radicalisation of black prisoners in the U.S. during the 1960s, and both the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam had a substantial following in the U.S. prisons during that period. And the prisoners that embraced these groups shared a common life experience of poverty, racism and injustice that in prison crystallized into political radicalism and commitment to a cause. The radicalisation of young British Muslims in jail is fuelled by the same life experience of racism and alienation, re-enforced by a growing Islamophobia on society generally and the profiling of almost entire communities as potential terrorists. Radical ideologies do not take root and grow in a vacuum and the message of the so-called “extremist Muslims within the prison system would not find fertile ground unless there also existed a collective experience with which that message resonated.
Clearly there are fundamental differences between the radical, left-wing politics that many prisoners in the U.S. and Europe embraced during the 1960s and 1970s, and the Islamic ideology that informs the radicalisation of young Muslim prisoners today, but whether secular or religious the prison radicalisation experience has a common subject: young alienated men whose lives are scarred by disadvantage and institutionalisation discovering an identity and cause that provides meaning, belief and a feeling of empowerment, probably for the first time in their lives. Within a total institution like prison power and powerlessness nakedly characterises every encounter and relationship with the system and those imposing it, and in such an environment radicalisation is inevitably deepened and confirmed, and indeed serves as a breeding ground for it.
The prison authorities recently announced the introduction of an “anti-extremist” programme for prisoners who had been radicalised but were now willing to participate in the programme as a condition of parole. Apparently only a small number of prisoners volunteered for the programme. Treating radicalisation as if it were just another form of “offending behaviour” or a personality disorder treatable by programmes or psychologically-based interventions illustrates how incapable the prison system is of truly understanding or accepting any responsibility for the radicalisation of prisoners.
The U.S. and British prison systems would seem to share a common problem of radicalisation and it's probably no coincidence that both systems share also an identically punitive approach and attitude towards the treatment of prisoners and a fixation with retribution and punishment, as opposed to, say, positive rehabilitation and reform. De-personalising and dehumanising prisoners might satisfy the popularist instincts of opportunistic politicians playing to the public gallery, but in terms of the effect on prisoners and ultimately public protection the outcome can be counter productive in the extreme. Prison repression breeds only anger and a hatred of the system and when already alienated young prisoners in such a brutalising environment discover a radical belief system the effect is predictable and inevitable.
Radicalisation in prisons is created and spread by the prison system itself, a truth described by George Jackson, a young black prisoner politically radicalised in jail who in 1970 wrote: “The black prisoners here are fast losing their restraints. Growing numbers of us are openly passed over when paroles are considered. They have become aware that their only hope lies in resistance. They have learned that resistance is actually possible. The holds are beginning to slip away. Very few men imprisoned for economic crimes or even crimes of passion against the oppressor feel that they are rarely guilty. Most of today's black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. With the living conditions of these places deteriorating, and the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been turned into an implacable army of liberation”. Jackson was giving voice at the time to a powerful current of political radicalisation sweeping through U.S. jails and deeply influencing in particular young black prisoners like himself who felt excluded and alienated from a society where racism was still overly present. In Britain today a growing Islamophobia and demonisation of the Muslim community is creating a similar generation of angry and excluded young men who within the prison system are increasingly seeing themselves as radicalised soldiers implacably at war with society and the system.
John Bowden 6729