* Â Go no further than the first five words in this article. ‘Psychologists in the Prison Service’. If you want something really fouled up, put the matter in the hands of the so-called ‘professionals’. The only thing this BS-article proves is that prison da’awa works.Â
Psychologists in the Prison Service will try to ‘cure’ extremist Muslim inmates of their political beliefs with controversial therapies similar to those used to ‘de-programme’ members of religious cults.
The experimental treatments are being developed by a special Extremism Unit set up by the Ministry of Justice in January last year, The Mail on Sunday has discovered.
Sources say the therapy forms part of a wide-ranging strategy to combat Islamic extremism in Britain’s jails.
Experimental techniques: One of Whitemoor Prison’s Muslim inmates
There are 90 Muslim prisoners serving time for terrorist offences, and the Ministry fears that, if left unchallenged, their violent, jihadist interpretation of Islam will spread.
About 11 per cent of prisoners are Muslim – three-and-a-half times the proportion in the UK population.
In maximum security ‘Category A’ jails such as Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire – the subject today of an exclusive report in Live magazine based on unprecedented access to both prisoners and staff – they make up 35 per cent of the inmates, and have converted numerous other prisoners to Islam.
In Whitemoor the 150 Muslim inmates include 39 who have converted in the jail since early last year. In some cases, officers believe converts have been subjected to bullying and changed their faith because they felt vulnerable.
A Ministry source said that to be a Muslim in jail was now seen as ‘cool’, and while Muslim prisoners once felt isolated and vulnerable, they were now ‘flexing their muscles’. This made it all the more important to ensure that extremist views did not spread.
The source added: ‘The great fear is that kids from places such as Southall in West London, who feel pretty alienated anyway, could be vulnerable to recruitment. We don’t have evidence this is happening – but we don’t have evidence that it’s not. We need to be aware of the possibility and act on it.’
Psychologists working with the Extremism Unit have for months been investigating ways of de-programming jihadists. Ministry sources said they planned to use ‘cognitive- behaviour’ methods, based on the notion that it is possible to change people’s behaviour by altering their perceptions and attitudes.
One source said: ‘It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t work with everyone. But our view of extremism is that, at the centre, the views of the hardcore, high-profile leaders will not be subject to change. But for those further out, it may be quite effective.’
Another source said: ‘Our focus is on protecting the public and on reducing the risk of offenders hurting others. It’s about stopping violence.’
Therapists would work with such prisoners individually, while the treatments would help the Prison Service determine whether prisoners would still be dangerous if released.
On the front line are approximately 150 prison imams, who are expected to challenge extremist beliefs on the basis of their own religious knowledge.
One source said: ‘We’re looking to them to shoot down the religious justification for violence. They have to be able to stand up to those who support terrorist killers and say they are wrong.’
At the same time, the Ministry had to accept that many Muslims felt a deep sense of grievance about British policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Imams ‘have to become a valve for the venting of prisoners’ anger without lending support to extremism themselves’.
The unit will train staff to recognise the signs of extremism, such as a charismatic prisoner openly challenging the authority of the imam.
The Daily Mail’s Live Magazine is the first publication to go inside HMP Whitemoor.Two extraordinary revelations emerge from DAVID ROSE’s investigation: an unprecedented surge of Muslim inmates and the Home Office’s secret directive to de-programme prisoners.
HMP Islam: Inside Whitemoor prison
At the front of a hangar-sized brick cavern that was once a workshop, Imam Tariq Mahmood is holding Friday prayers. As he stands in his pulpit beneath the sign of the crescent moon, the congregation kneels prostrate on prayer mats, murmuring verses in Arabic in response to his lead.
The mosque is busy. The rackÂ by the entrance have overspilled, leaving dozens of shoes on the floor.Â
In his gleaming white salwar kameez, Mahmood, a well-built man of 39 who was born in Pakistan, looks resplendent.Â
The worshippers are more casual. Along with their prayer caps, most wear T-shirts and jeans. A little over half appear to be of South Asian descent.Â
There are at least 20 Caucasians, and the rest are Afro-Caribbean.Â
Most have beards. It’s Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. ‘The lesson of Ramadan is that you must drive your desires, instead of your desires driving you,’ Mahmood says in his sermon. ‘If desire is not controlled, people can commit mistakes â€“ very horrible things.’
In fact, most of those present â€“ 105 this week in late September â€“ have done horrible things already.Â
As inmates at Whitemoor maximum-security prison in Cambridgeshire, nearly three-quarters are serving life for murder or indeterminate sentences for other violent crimes.Â
Their average ‘tariff’ â€“ the minimum term they must serve before the Parole Board can consider possible release â€“ is 15.7 years. Some will not be on the streets again for more than 30.
Watched by a complement of just six officers, the Friday prayer service at Whitemoor represents the biggest regular gathering of high-risk prisoners anywhere in Britain.Â
Staff are well aware that some of the worst prison riots, such as 1990’s Strangeways disturbance in Manchester, have ‘kicked off’ at religious events.
The service is also a focal point of what the Government regards as a critical political struggle.Â
Eight of the Muslim prisoners in Whitemoor have been convicted of crimes under the Terrorism Acts, including suicide-bomb plots that, mercifully, didn’t succeed.Â
At the Ministry Of Justice, a high-level ‘Extremism Unit’ seeks to stop the spread of the type of Islam that approves of terrorism. Its officials see imams such as Mahmood as this battle’s front line.
As the prayers proceed, from beyond the mosque’s locked door come the sounds that form a backdrop in any jailhouse: the jangle of keys; the thwack of bolts and gates; the ululation of men’s voices echoing through an environment where almost every surface is as hard as some of the inmates.Â
But here, as a young prisoner sings a solo prayer in a thin, haunting tenor, the atmosphere is solemn.Â
There is no whispering. ‘In Ramadan, if you will change the direction of your journey, the door of paradise is open,’ Mahmood says. ‘One day, Inshallah [God willing], you will lead a normal life again.’
When the meeting breaks up, about 20 prisoners surround me, all with urgent questions.Â
Some sound a note of aggression: how do they know I won’t portray them all as extremists, or disrespect their faith? What comeback will they have if I don’t keep my promise not to publish pictures that would allow them to be identified?
I do my best to satisfy them. The moment of unease passes. Within a few minutes, they seem to lose interest and file quietly back to their wings.Â Â
I am here at the invitation of the governor, Steve Rodford, 49, who since his appointment two years ago has become exasperated at the prison’s negative image.Â
The Sun claimed earlier this year that Whitemoor’s A wing is ‘the most dangerous in Britain’. According to The Observer, ‘a serious incident is imminent’, because officers are ‘losing control to Muslim gangs’.
Accused by the press of being too lenient, now Rodford also faces claims that Whitemoor is too repressive.Â
A new report by Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector Of Prisons, says relationships between staff and inmates are ‘distant and distrustful’, and that staff treat all Muslims ‘as suspected national-security risks or extremists’.Â
Since her last visit in 2006, ‘the population had become more challenging, but it was not evident that the prison had yet been able to rise to those challenges’.
Rodford makes me a promise.Â
I can go wherever I want and talk to anyone, staff or prisoner, with only one condition: that in a jail where many of the inmates and their crimes are extremely well known, I don’t reveal prisoners’ identities.Â
With that I become the first journalist to be given unrestricted access, with the run of the prison for four full days. A photographer is also allowed into the prison for the first time.
There are three regular wings at Whitemoor, each with three three-storey ‘spurs’ holding about 40 inmates. (D wing, the fourth, is a therapeutic unit for men with dangerous personality disorders, run with the Health Service.)Â
Within each spur, in the hours they spend unlocked from their cells, prisoners have freedom of movement; they’re able to use pool and ping-pong tables and a small fitness area on the ground floor, and walk along the brightly illuminated landings.
I spend most of my time in A wing.Â
Having visited many jails in Britain and America, one thing strikes me immediately: it’s spotlessly clean.Â
Most prisons stink, but in Whitemoor the only odours are enticing.Â
They come from the prisoners’ communal kitchens, where small groups cook their own food, purchased with their pay from prison work.Â
The cooks have access to a full range of knives. They have to be returned to staff after use, but as yet they’ve never been used for an assault.
There’s no doubt, to use Owers’s word, that Whitemoor has become more ‘challenging’, with the challenge posed by Islam the greatest of all.Â
Ten years ago, Muslims accounted for only a handful of the prison’s 450-odd inmates â€“ ‘I used to feel sorry for them,’ says a veteran London drug smuggler.Â
They now number 153, around 35 per cent â€“ proportionately more than in any other prison, and ten times the percentage in the population at large.Â
Some use prison to encourage others to join their faith. As of this month, there are 39 inmates who converted to Islam while in Whitemoor, a few of whom have openly advocated extremist views.
The Ministry Of Justice doesn’t know why, but Muslims are over-represented throughout the prison system â€“ the 9,500 self-described Muslim prisoners currently make up over 11 per cent of the inmate population, around three-and-a-half times the proportion outside.Â
This can’t be explained by terrorism: only about 90 have been convicted of crimes regarded as ‘al-Qaeda-linked or -influenced’.Â
‘It may simply be they’re coming from deprived urban areas where there’s more criminality,’ one ministry official says. ‘But something else seems to be happening in the younger generation â€“ and in prison, they’re much more prepared to flex their muscles.’
Ultimately, more Muslims are entering Whitemoor because in south-east England, its ‘catchment area’, more Muslims are being convicted of the serious crimes that lead to offenders being sent there.
After years of slow growth, since 2006 the number of Muslims in the prison has doubled.Â
However, most of the staff are from white Fenland towns such as March and Wisbech, and have had little previous contact with Islam.
The big increase coincided with the arrival of the first convicted Muslim terrorists, and Rodford admits that at first staff over-reacted: ‘There was a feeling that the world was coming to an end and these Muslims were going to blow us all up in the prison.’
Darren Roberts, a senior officer on A wing, says, ‘A few months ago, if we’d seen three Muslims together training in the gym, the perception would have been, “They’re building themselves up; they must be planning something.” Yet
if three high-risk white gangsters had been doing that, we wouldn’t have made that assumption. I think people are calming down.’
Intractable issues remain, however, including the rate of conversions.
‘Being a Muslim is seen as “cool”, and Muslim identity can be a glue that holds people in prison together,’ the ministry official says. But freedom of conscience is one thing, coercion another.
‘I get on with the Muslims,’ says a London gangster in his sixties, serving life for murder.Â
‘But you do get some who join them because they’re weak. Say we were having a fight, and I was a Muslim and you’re not. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, because the next thing you’d know, there’d be half a dozen of them on you.’
In the segregation unit, a bleak spur where prisoners are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, I meet a Scot in his forties who says he hid a makeshift knife made from a plastic pen and a razor blade to protect himself from Muslims who operated like a prison gang â€“ with the difference that instead of trying to sell drugs, they were trying to recruit converts.Â
‘In Long Lartin [a prison in Worcestershire], I’ve seen them throwing pots of hot ghee over two black boys who wouldn’t turn Muslim,’ he says. ‘The violence here isn’t so bad. But if you’re not one of them, they shun you.’ He says he wants to stay in the unit.
Aware that in America Muslim gangs have become a magnet for resistance to prison authorities, the Ministry Of Justice set up its Extremism Unit in March 2007.Â
The problem is not imaginary. One afternoon, I sit with a prisoner from Africa who has been in Whitemoor for several years. ‘There are people here who call themselves Muslims who are just trying to build a clique, to rebel against the system,’ he says. ‘A lot of them have extremist beliefs. I was brought up a strict Muslim and I know the Book.Â
I was the first one challenging them. I showed them the proof, what the Book says â€“ that they have been brainwashed.
I want people to look at Muslims in the same way I look at a Christian, a Buddhist or a Jew, and to know that Muslims value human life.’ Waging that battle has cost him dear: earlier this year he was stabbed.
I meet no one in Whitemoor who admits to supporting terrorism. The Extremism Unit regards those convicted of terrorist crimes with particular wariness, and on A wing, the potential influence wielded by one convicted would-be bomber is immediately visible.
A powerfully-built, gregarious man, he seems imbued with a constant, restless motion, trotting up and down the stairs and along the landings, chatting to everyone.
‘As Muslims, it’s part of our religion to see the wider picture,’ he says, going on to voice fierce criticisms of British and American foreign policy and the civilian deaths caused in Afghanistan and Iraq.Â
However, he pleaded not guilty at his trial and continues to insist he was innocent. He entertains few hopes of eventual release. ‘I understand the politics, and I know I’m likely to die in prison. I feel I’m here for a purpose. For me, it’s like a decree from God. Whatever it is, I’m happy with it.’
A big, soft-spoken man who lets staff address him by his first name, Rodford spends a lot of time striding Whitemoor’s corridors and checking on its wings, often beset by prisoners with grievances or demands.Â
‘One minute you’re on the phone being grilled by a government minister. The next you’re down B wing, being slagged off by some triple murderer saying how he’d love to stab your wife and kids. You need to be intelligent. But you also need some bottle.’
Leaving school at 16, he spent 13 years with the Post Office before becoming an ordinary wing officer at London’s Wormwood Scrubs. Whitemoor is his third prison as chief governor.
The three spurs in each wing are divided from each other by firmly locked gates. This is imperative. Some prisoners simply cannot be housed together â€“ for example, members of two Midlands gangs, the Burger Bar Boys and the Johnson Crew.
It was their mutual enmity that led to the shooting of four teenage girls in Birmingham in January 2003, and numerous subsequent murders.
Prisoners in Whitemoor
The gangs’ increasing aggressiveness is partly due to the fact that the average age of Whitemoor’s prisoners is falling, with several lifers barely old enough to be in an adult prison facing 30 or 40 years behind bars.
‘They’re young fellas, strutting the landings like they just don’t care,’ Rodford says. ‘Actually, they do care. But they don’t make life any easier. It feels like every week you’re getting more prisoners that maybe you’d rather not have.’
An internal review in April revealed that although ‘only’ 20 per cent of inmates were members of recognised gangs, they were responsible for about half the prison’s assaults.Â
The statistic of eight serious attacks (only one was on an officer) in the preceding year compares well with other high-security jails, but the level is rising.Â
In the week before my arrival, a prisoner who’d spent two months in the segregation unit for his own protection was attacked in his cell within 20 minutes of returning to an ordinary wing. He ended up in hospital with a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage.
‘It’s not like the old days, when you had IRA men and Ulster Protestants in the same
prison,’ the veteran gangster says. ‘They used to get on inside. This lot work through their outside vendettas in prison.’
Some gang members are notorious, brutal figures on the outside, and they exert a powerful influence within the prison.Â
‘You’re aware of what they can do; of the fact they’ve had police officers on their payroll, perhaps had people killed,’ says senior officer Roberts. ‘If you went back 1,000 years, they would have been tribal leaders. They know the streets, they can read body language.’
According to Rodford, there are two secrets to managing such inmates, be they radical Muslims or any other difficult prisoners.Â
The first is to use a range of sanctions: placing an inmate on the ‘basic regime’, where items such as TVs are removed; a week or two in the segregation unit; or ‘ghosting’, sudden removal to another wing or prison.Â
More important, though, is building relationships between staff and prisoners: ‘The best way to defuse a tense situation is talk to them in a civilised fashion,’ says Rodford.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds. The infamous 1994 escape of six prisoners from Whitemoor occurred because of what the service calls ‘conditioning’ â€“ the process of blandishments, blackmail and outright intimidation through which an intelligent and ruthless prisoner can manipulate an officer to the point where he or she may be willing to risk everything.Â
Last month, former Whitemoor officer Yvonne Taylor was convicted of smuggling drugs and mobile phones for Burger Bar Boys gang inmates.Â
According to her former colleagues, her conditioning started with simple compliments on her appearance, and ended with Taylor sending pictures of herself in her underwear to the illicit mobile which she’d acquired for a prisoner.
‘I was rushed getting ready for work one morning and forgot to put on my engagement ring,’ says a female officer who asks not to be named. ‘Within ten minutes, three prisoners had asked me, acting all sympathetic, if my relationship was on the rocks. That’s how observant they are, how quick they can be to get under your skin.’
Yet as I explore A wing for myself, walking the landings without an escort and talking to prisoners in their cells, the atmosphere seems calm, routine, unthreatening.Â
Between inmates and officers, there’s a lot of normal, polite dialogue.Â
But it has its limits. ‘Suddenly there’ll be tension,’ says Laura, an officer in her twenties. ‘You get an atmosphere. It will go quiet; you’ll get stared at, blanked, or certain prisoners won’t come out of their cells. It means something’s happened in their secret world. Often we’ll have no idea what that is.’
Rodford calls Whitemoor’s changing population a ‘toxic mix, with the potential to cause chaos’.Â
Professor Alison Liebling, director of Cambridge University’s Prisons Research Centre, says, ‘This is a jail facing unprecedented challenges.Â
The people who work in prisons are the ghosts of the criminal justice system â€“ seldom seen, but getting blamed for trying to manage situations that society creates.Â
And a lot of the time they get it right, doing a job most people wouldn’t go near.’
The Extremism Unit is investigating at least one longer-range strategy that may help deal with jihadists: cognitive behavioural therapy, similar to the ‘de-programming’ methods used to ‘unbrainwash’ members of religious cults.
Based on the notion that it’s possible to change people’s behaviour by shifting their perceptions and attitudes, other types of cognitive treatment, such as anger management and courses for sex offenders, are well established in British prisons, and have cut reoffending rates.
But a course for Muslim extremists would be a radical, controversial departure.
‘De-programming’ sex offenders is one thing; to do the same with a prisoner’s faith and political beliefs quite another.Â
The whiteboard, in the governor’s office at Whitemoor
‘It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t work with everyone,’ an official says.Â
‘But our view of extremism is that it consists of concentric circles. At the centre, the views of the hardcore, high-profile leaders will not be subject to change. But for those further out, it may be quite effective.’
Meanwhile in Whitemoor, Rodford is looking to more traditional methods, both to combat extremism and ensure that conversions to Islam are voluntary.Â
For example, he has instituted a system of ‘bullying reports’ on the wings, by which prisoners suspected of pressurising others are warned and monitored.
Inevitably, this has aroused opposition.
‘You pay a heavy price for being a Muslim in this jail,’ says a prisoner from Yorkshire convicted for firearms offences and money-laundering.
‘I was placed on a stage-two bullying form and threatened with the seg unit because I was supposedly pressurising other prisoners to change their religion. But they wouldn’t say who, and they wouldn’t tell me how they knew this fact.
‘Islam attracts other prisoners because it’s a beautiful religion. You can’t force someone into it, because if their heart isn’t pure their conversion will have no meaning, no value. Religion has changed me, made me a better person. But it’s got to the stage here where we can’t talk to non-Muslim prisoners, because if we do, they say we’re trying to convert them. But if we ignore them, the officers will say we must hate them. We can’t win.’
Rodford has also organised training days with the imam, in an attempt to provide staff with an awareness of Islam’s teachings.Â
‘The fear and hype is diminishing. We’re coming out the other side and learning how to manage this,’ he says.
As for extremism, Imam Mahmood is being asked to carry a weighty burden.
Like any prison chaplain, much of his work is taken up with pastoral duties: attending to inmates with physical and mental health problems, helping them deal with bereavement.Â
He also runs Islamic studies, and a special ‘justice awareness’ course, a programme designed to make Muslim criminals aware of the perspective of their victims.
‘Prisoners are like patients, and we are spiritual doctors who must make their best efforts to save patients who might die. My approach is, I don’t judge.Â
‘The judgment has been made by the court. I make no exception for those convicted of terrorist offences: they need their treatment, too. If I see a murderer, I don’t withhold my message.Â
‘If you judge, you cannot reform them. God is mercy.’