Cagey: UK Prisons and What You Can’t Say There

Over many weeks, this column has examined extremism in a range of political contexts and parts of the world. Extremist groups that oppose governments exist in a variety of different forms, in both the most tightly controlled dictatorships and the most liberal democracies. And in every context, there are angry people who say that these groups should not be allowed to exist at all. In the 2015 UK General Election, many left-wingers were outraged at the high number of people who voted for UKIP, arguing that a party with such extreme views should be regulated in some way to stop their allegedly racist views being on the ballot paper (although thanks to the first-past-the-post voting system, UKIP only returned one MP). The democracies, that most of us are fortunate enough to live in, ensure that our governments regulate against extremist groups only in the most basic form; that a group or political party can exist and make their views clear up to the point of seriously harming other people. And yet across the political spectrum people continue to argue that something must be done by governments to stop these extremist groups and speakers.

With all that in mind, the UK Ministry of Justice has used these hectic political weeks to actualise a piece of legislation aimed at doing just this – battling against extremism. No one voted for this legislation; it was not laid out in any manifesto and will happen regardless of the wishes of the British public. First announced last August by Justice Secretary Liz Truss, the definite plans now cleared for this summer will see the first ‘extremist-only’ prison units open in England and Wales: specifically in County Durham. Those offenders who are deemed to hold extreme views and who ‘seek to poison the minds of others’ will be separated into their own high-security wings to stop the growing number of prisoners have allegedly been radicalised whilst in prison in the last few years. How these extremists will be identified is as yet unclear; how these extremist wings will operate is still uncertain – although Ms Truss assured us that ‘100 counter-extremism experts’ will be on-hand to deal with the prisoners.

meesh, via Flickr
Image courtesy of meesh, via Flickr, © 2012, some rights reserved.

It should be acknowledged that this legislation came in the wake of a report by an independent enquiry, and that the government is in many ways simply responding to what both the public and our zeitgeist demand. Despite not being stated anywhere as official party policy, Theresa May has been toying with this idea since she first became Home Secretary in 2010. And yet this issue raises questions that many of us remember asking in 2015 when legislation was introduced to heavily regulate extremist speakers orating on university campuses and in schools. Many argued then that students were having the right to hear all sides of an argument and make up their own mind taken away from them. True, groups in schools and universities are provably more vulnerable to radicalisation by extremist groups, but there are good arguments against banning these groups. Allowing our children and youth to decide for themselves that extremist hate groups should be ignored or fought against is, of course, not as easy as it sounds. But this remains the Platonic ideal of a liberal democracy; it is only possible through the existence of freedom of expression and a free press that allows these groups to get their messages across and also exposes the true horrors of the actions of these groups.

This argument is less easy to make regarding our prisoners. They, after all, already have had their rights taken away by the law, and deciding which of their rights to protect is a contentious issue. Which side you take here will depend on why you think prisons exist, and the reasoning behind our penal system varies enormously across political parties. If you believe prison should serve as a punishment and little more, then keeping prisoners segregated is a smart move. If you believe that prisons should aim to reform prisoners and adjust them to life in the real world then it is perhaps harder to argue that removing the entirety of their freedom of expression is justified. Introducing programmes to educate prisoners on the actions of extremist groups and introducing therapy to remove the glorification of violence and war are the ways to do this; not simply dividing groups in an environment where ethnic and religious division is already a problem.

In a 12 month period that has shown a rise in support for extreme political views – the Brexit referendum, presidential elections in the Netherlands, Austria, France and the USA and now the upcoming UK General Election – we have a responsibility to keep our publics informed. Too many of these results have come about thanks to ignorance and fear. Members of the public and prisoners alike who are afraid of radical influence in prisons will grow even more alienated in learning that these individuals have been separated from the rest. This is, after all, how extremist groups form in the first place – fear of an unknown or poorly understood opponent crystallising into an active group to battle said opponent. We are creating as much grounds for radicalisation through segregation as we are through integration, if not more.

There is no easy answer on how to deal with extremist groups in state-controlled institutions, but I hope this column has made my personal view clear – that an enhancement of education and living standards for people across the world is a better way to tackle extremism than by removing people’s voting rights or rights of freedom of speech. One can only hope that whichever party wins in the UK on 8 June, they will continue to allow freedom of expression amongst all groups to as great am extent as possible.


First published in the Foreign Affairs Review on 2nd May 2017


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