Longer jail time for terrorists could backfire, says watchdog

Dan Sabbagh
Longer jail time for terrorists could backfire, says watchdog. Jonathan Hall QC says there is a risk prisoners will be further radicalised behind bars

Emergency plans to increase the minimum time terrorists serve in jail risk being counterproductive because of the danger that prisoners will be further radicalised behind bars, the official watchdog has said.

Jonathan Hall QC said the Lords should consider striking out government proposals to increase the minimum time served to two-thirds of the sentence after warnings that violent extremism is not under control in the prison system

“The question is whether keeping a non-risky prisoner longer in custody rather than releasing them will protect the public,” the barrister and independent reviewer of terror legislation wrote.

“Recent reporting on conditions in prisons suggest that keeping prisoners in custody any longer than necessary may expose them to worse influences than if released.”

Legislation was rushed through the Commons last week in response to two attacks in London in November and February by convicted terrorists who had been released on licence at the halfway point of their sentences.

Hall said introducing emergency legislation was justified because of the need to boost public confidence and “to disrupt the momentum of further possible copycat attacks”. But he questioned keeping prisoners inside for longer.

Last week it was reported that a convicted killer – not in jail for terror offences – had attempted a jihadist attack on three prison guards at HMP Winchester. Nobody was injured in the attack by Xeneral Imiuru, 20, but it prompted renewed warnings that Islamist extremism presents a threat both inside and outside jails.

Ian Acheson, who led an independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons in 2016, told the BBC that prison staff were “increasingly being confronted with a lethal extremist-inspired threat for which they are patently not equipped to deal with”.

He added: “I think there is an institutional squeamishness at the top of the prison service to deal with this problem, which unfortunately has now led to the situation that we see where we have got violent extremism that is at best delayed inside custody and at worst weaponised.”

The Lords is due to debate the emergency terror bill next Monday. It is unlikely that the government would welcome any attempt to substantively amend the proposals, which were rushed through the Commons with cross-party support last week.

Ministers estimate that about 50 terror offenders who would have been released automatically will be affected by the legislation, starting with Mohammed Zahir Khan, a Sunderland shopkeeper who was jailed for sharing Islamist material and calling for death to Shia Muslims in May 2018.

Hall said there would be a further risk if all terror offenders were held to the end of their sentence, because they would then be eligible for release without any licence conditions.

Prisoners released early are subject to conditions such as a requirement to live at a specified location and to wear an electronic tag, and can be recalled to prison if there problems with their behaviour.

Hall wrote that the possibility of “risky offenders being released without these controls gives rise to a cliff-edge in terms of managing their risk”. He said the Lords might consider whether a period of release under licence was preferable “from a perspective of public safety”.

Although ministers have suggested that other controls could be used, such as terrorist prevention and investigation measures (TPIMs), Hall said these were expensive to maintain and administer. The last official figures show that only three were in use as of 31 October.