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Prison radicalisation problem increasing says former counter-terror chief

Former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office Chris Phillips warned that staff shortages are making it harder to tackle Islamic radicalisation in England’s prisons, and that extremists were not properly monitored, enabling them to conduct recruitment drives among fellow prisoners.

Phillips said: “What we have actually is a prison population that’s growing. We have less officers generally in prisons than ever before and we also have less police officers to deal with them, so what we have is a growing haystack of extremists where we still have to find the single needle that’s going to go off and do something really nasty.

“But of course we’ve got less people to go and look for them as well so it’s a really difficult thing for the police service and prison service to deal with.”

Justice secretary Chris Grayling rejected the claim and said a ‘very careful watch’ was kept on the issue. He said: “Prison overcrowding is at virtually its lowest level for a decade, and we have increased spending on measures to prevent radicalisation.”

The latest official data shows that more than 100 Muslims are in jail for terrorism offences in Great Britain. The worry particularly concerns converts to Islam. Research by former chief inspector of prisons Dame Anne Owers suggests they are more vulnerable, but also said suspicion of Muslim prisoners could be both unfair and counter-productive, fuelling resentment.

Home secretary Theresa May rejected the claim that staff shortages were hindering efforts to stop Islamic radicalisation in prisons, adding that the government was looking at ‘and continue to look at’ preventative measures.

May has already said she wants new ‘extremism officer’ roles in prisons to deal with radicalisation, and the government has said all high-security jails have units who work with the security services to root out extremism. It also said there were faith-based interventions, led by a team of expert Islamic leaders.

Phillips said: “The answer is to get into the prisons and to make sure the most susceptible people are kept away from those that might turn those into extremists and, at this moment, we cannot even keep drugs out of prison, we can’t keep mobile phones out of prison, so clearly there is not enough staff to do that.”

Stephen O’Connell, president of the Prison Governors Association, told the BBC that the threat from radicalisation in prisons was ‘real’ but he said he was not aware that it had got any worse over the last year because of staffing changes.

He said: “I understand the correlation between staff numbers and prisoner numbers but when it comes to dealing with extremists, we are talking about a small number of prisoners with some very dedicated resources to actually managing those.”

The Justice Select Committee recently criticised the government for cutting the number of prison officers by 12,530 staff between 31 March 2010 and 30 June 2014. The committee’s report also said the prisoner‑to‑staff ratio rose from 3.8 in September 2010 to 4.9 in September 2014. It claims that this has led to a significant deterioration in safety – with fewer
staff to monitor inmates.

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