Manufacturing radicalisation

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According to the Ministry of Justice, there are now 12,000 Muslim prisoners in England and Wales, double the number a decade ago. This has prompted extensive media coverage about prison ‘radicalisation’. John Bowden writes about the reality behind the propaganda.

The narrative is familiarly one-dimensional and ‘public protection’ orientated. We are told that young, mostly black and Asian prisoners are being brainwashed by hardened Muslim extremist prisoners and fashioned into potential terrorists and fanatics, and that in some prisons, the balance of power between prison staff and ‘Muslim gangs’ has shifted dangerously to the advantage of the latter. The media and political establishment link this to the worldwide rise of Islamic extremism but completely fail to explain it within the contextual reality of prison itself or the treatment of prisoners.

The subject of ‘radicalisation’ in prison is depicted by the media and politicians as a relatively contemporary phenomenon associated with the rise of Islamic extremism post-9/11. In fact, the political or religious radicalisation of prisoners has many historical antecedents, especially in the US, and is a phenomenon created and influenced not just by prisoner peer group pressure or the alleged brainwashing activities of dominant and manipulative extremist prisoners; it is a transformative experience primarily influenced by forces of alienation and exclusion, and intrinsically linked to the life experiences of the radicalised.

Prisons have always been sites of potential radicalisation – Malcolm X once described them as ‘universities of revolution’ – and during the 1960s and 1970s a veritable wave of political radicalisation swept through the prison systems of the US and western Europe, that found form and expression in prisoners’ unions, revolutionary organisations and uprisings that were vocalised in the language of class struggle and radical politics. This movement also created a whole genre of radical prison literature which politicised the whole prison experience and viewed it through the prism of social and political repression. Racism, in particular, focused the anger and radicalisation of black prisoners in the US, and both the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam had a substantial prisoner following during that period. The prisoners who embraced these groups shared a common life experience of poverty, racism and injustice that in prison crystallised into political radicalism and commitment to a cause. The current radicalisation of young British Muslim prisoners is fuelled by similar life experience of racism and alienation, reinforced by growing Islamophobia in society generally and the profiling of entire communities as potential terrorists. Radical ideologies do not take root and grow in a vacuum, and the message of the so-called ‘extremist Muslims’ within the prison system would not find fertile ground without the existence of a collective experience with which that message resonated.

Clearly there are fundamental differences between the radical, left-wing prison politics of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Islamic ideas that inform the radicalisation of young Muslim prisoners today, but whether secular or religious, the prison radicalisation experience has a common subject: young alienated men whose lives are scarred by disadvantage and institutionalisation discovering an identity and cause that provides meaning, belief and a feeling of empowerment, probably for the first time in their lives. Within a total institution like prison, power and powerlessness nakedly characterise every encounter and relationship between the system and those imposing it, and in such an environment radicalisation is inevitably deepened and confirmed.

The prison authorities have made several attempts to recruit radicalised prisoners on to ‘anti-extremism programmes’ but only a very small number have volunteered for these programmes. Treating radicalisation as just another form of ‘offending behaviour, or a personality disorder treatable by psychologically based intervention illustrates how incapable the prison system is of truly understanding the radicalisation of prisoners.

The US and British prison systems share a punitive approach towards the treatment of prisoners and a fixation with retribution and punishment, as opposed to any kind of positive rehabilitation or reform. Depersonalising and dehumanising prisoners might satisfy the populist instincts of opportunistic politicians playing to the public gallery, but in terms of the effect on prisoners, repression breeds only anger and hatred of the system, and when already alienated young prisoners in such a brutalising environment discover a radical belief system the effect is predictable.

Radicalism in prisons is created and spread by the prison system itself, a truth described by George Jackson, who as a young black US prisoner, politically radicalised in the 1970s, wrote: ‘The black prisoners here are fast losing their restraints. Growing numbers of us are openly passed over when paroles are considered. They have become aware that their only hope lies in resistance. They have learned that resistance is actually possible. The holds are beginning to slip away. Very few men imprisoned for economic crimes or even crimes of passion against the oppressor feel that they are really guilty. Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. With the living conditions of these places deteriorating, and the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been turned into an implacable army of liberation.’

Jackson was giving voice at the time to a powerful current of political radicalisation sweeping through US prisons and deeply influencing in particular young black prisoners like himself who felt excluded and alienated from a society where racism was still overtly present. In Britain today a growing Islamophobia and demonisation of the Muslim community is creating a generation of angry and excluded young men who within the prison system are increasingly seeing themselves as radicalised soldiers implacably at war with society and the system.

John Bowden, HMP Shotts

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014