British prisons must not be allowed to become “terrorist training grounds” as the number of extremist inmates rise, the government has been warned.
The number of terrorist prisoners hit a record high last year, and a package of new laws currently going through parliament aims to make them serve longer inside jail by increasing sentences and changing release rules.
During a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday, several peers demanded assurances that security inside prisons will be maintained and extremists can be deradicalised.
Proposing a series of amendments to the new Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Marks said: “We are also concerned to consider the effect on other prisoners of having serious terrorist offenders in their midst.
“It is of great importance to avoid the risk that the most serious offenders are seen as some kind of kingpins within prisons to be looked up to and emulated. If our prisons become terrorist training grounds, the effect of long sentences will have been utterly counterproductive.”
Lord Marks called for a review of separation centres, which are intended to isolate influential extremists from the mainstream process.
Three were opened in the wake of a damning review on Islamist extremism, but only one remains in operation.
Concern about radicalisation and terrorist networking have been mounting following revelations in recent trials for alleged attack plotters.
Four terror attacks were launched by serving or released prisoners in a seven-month period between November 2019 and June, in Fishmongers’ Hall, HMP Whitemoor, Streatham and Reading.
During the House of Lords debate, a minister said a Home Office unit had conducted an “internal review of lone-actor terrorism” in the summer, but that its findings were “sensitive and will not be published”.
Green Party peer Baroness Jones said the changes in the new bill “can either work very well or be disastrous”.
Footage of 'terror attack' by prisoners at HMP Whitemoor
“The government are taking a very worrying approach to counterterrorism with this sort of ‘tough on crime’ mentality, where we just lock people up and throw away the key,” she added.
“There is a huge risk that issues and behaviours like this can spread in prison and in fact the prisons become a recruiting ground. That is pretty much how Isis started, in the prison camps in Iraq, so we have a precedent for some quite damaging events coming out of locking people up.
“We have to be very careful that the government’s attempts to imprison people indefinitely do not just make the problem much worse.”
Labour peer Lord Ponsonby said that bodies representing prison guards and probation officers had raised concerns about the impact of removing the possibility of early release from some terrorists.
“It is much easier to manage a prison, and much safer for their members, if there is hope for the prisoners themselves,” he added. “There has been a huge increase in attacks on prison officers in recent years.”
Baroness Hamwee, a Liberal Democrat peer, said: “No hope can lead to an attitude of not having anything to lose, managing to get involved in terrorism and suceeding with catastrophic effect.”
The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons in July, and was going through its report stage in House of Lords.
Amendments will be made before it goes back to MPs for their final approval.
The law as initially drafted would increase the maximum penalty from 10 to 14 years’ imprisonment for several terror offences.
Judges would also be able to increase the sentence for any crime punishable by more than two years in prison by finding a “terrorist connection”.
The bill would force terrorists given extended determinate sentences to serve the entire term in prison, rather than being released on licence, but only if the maximum penalty for the crime was life.
An impact assessment commissioned by the Ministry of Justice said that while longer sentences could give terrorists more opportunity to engage in deradicalisation programmes, there “is a risk of offenders radicalising others during their stays in custody”.
Legal changes would see those found guilty of selected offences, such as planning attacks, handed a minimum 14-year prison term and monitored for up to 25 years after their release under new “serious terrorism sentence”.
The law would also increase licence periods and introduce lie detector tests for released prisoners, and enabled the extended imposition of Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims).
Responding to Wednesday’s debate on the government’s behalf Lord Stewart, the Scottish lord advocate, said the bill would be subject to post-legislative scrutiny.
“Efforts in our prison system to deradicalise and rehabilitate offenders in custody are ongoing, and techniques are developing constantly,” Lord Stewart said.
“We have a set of specialist operational controls for managing counterterrorism risk in custody, as well as a number of population-management controls available for use across the entire prison estate.
“Most extremist prisoners can, and should, be managed in the mainstream prison population with appropriate conditions and controls.
“We take the risk of radicalisation within the prison estate seriously and, where deemed necessary, we have used, and will use, the separation centres available to us to prevent persons spreading malicious ideology to other prisoners.”
Lord Stewart said the main deradicalisation programme, the Healthy Identity Intervention, was currently being evaluated and that a “new counterterrorism assessment and rehabilitation centre” was being established.