Page last updated at 04:26 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 05:26 UK

Prison is 'not taming' Islamist radicals

By Gail Champion
BBC Radio 4

The government says there are no easy ways of de-radicalising extremists

Government efforts to de-radicalise jailed Islamic extremists are failing, former inmates have told the BBC.

The prison service employs Muslim chaplains to "challenge and undermine extremist ideology".

But former prisoners claim the imams are viewed as "puppets" and allege some have even been assaulted.

The Ministry of Justice said it was working "with a number of third-sector partner organisations" to rehabilitate prisoners.

Around 200 extremists have been jailed since the 2005 London bombings and some are now due for release from prison and are returning to their communities.

Londoner Qasim (not his real name), who was 17 when he was jailed for three and a half years after admitting attending a place used for terrorist training, said the prison imams failed to challenge his core beliefs.

Prison didn't change my views at all, in fact it made me stronger in my beliefs
Shah Jalal Hussain

"They didn't try to de-radicalise me. There wasn't much of that at all to be honest. There was a prison imam but he only came on a Friday to lead prayers," he told BBC Radio 4.

Other former prisoners claimed that the 200-strong prison imam service is not equipped to address the core ideology which led to their crimes.

Shah Jalal Hussain, who also lives in London and spent 18 months in prison after being convicted of raising funds to support terrorism, claimed that prison imams were viewed with open hostility and as "puppets of the regime".

"A number of times he [the imam] was even attacked physically. He tried to press charges, but dropped them in the end. Prison didn't change my views at all, in fact it made me stronger in my beliefs," he said.

'No easy solution'

The government said Muslim extremists presented a complex profile and there were "no off-the-shelf interventions" which could be used to deal with them.

Instead, "offenders are managed based on individual risk assessments and sentence plans".

Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) said once prisoners were back in the community, traditional risk assessment tools and strategies were proving ineffective.

Mr Fletcher said there was still no guidance to help his members deal with the growing numbers of former terrorist prisoners now being released into hostels and the community.

"The authorities have had many years to look at this issue. It is worrying that it wasn't until autumn 2009 that something was put out and it was so weak that it was withdrawn and nothing has replaced it since," he told the BBC.

Prison generic
Ex-inmates say prison had no effect on their beliefs

Dr Peter Neumann from the Centre for Radicalisation at King's College, who has recently researched de-radicalisation efforts in 15 different countries, said a much larger prison imam service is a step in the right direction, but added that ex-inmates needed more support outside prison.

"There is no point in de-radicalising people in prison then releasing them, as they will go back to the people they used to hang out with, and fall into the trap again," he said.

"It's very important to have a post-release network in place to allow them to escape jihadist activities."

Challenging ideology

The probation service is now starting to refer some released prisoners to Muslim-led community based organisations.

Using a variety of approaches these projects aim to challenge the offenders' ideology and offer a more mainstream understanding of Islam.

Qasim, who claimed he was successfully de-radicalised with the help of the Stockwell Green Muslim Centre, which runs a tailored 18-month programme called Preventative and Lasting Measures, said having the chance to discuss his beliefs through the programme was vital.

"I had one-to-one sessions and mentoring. It's been positive to address various issues and not feel you are in trouble. My mind has now changed, I've realised I was doing more harm than good."

A Conservative spokesperson said the Islamist threat posed unique challenges and "the UK must investigate international best practice".

The Liberal Democrats added the "process of de-radicalisation, monitoring, and rehabilitation has to continue outside of prison as well".

But according to Mr Fletcher the need for a comprehensive, formal strategy was becoming increasingly urgent as growing numbers of terror offenders were being scheduled for release.

"What we would like to see now is attention given to strategies both inside prison and out that would offer de-radicalisation and reduce the risk to the public."

Freed Radicals is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 13 April at 2000 BST, repeated Sunday 18 April at 1700. You can also listen via the BBC iPlayer after broadcast.

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