The effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes in UK prisons is coming under increased public scrutiny. Government, parliament, and criminal justice agencies have discussed the programmes’ efficacy following recent UK terrorist attacks.  

In February 2020, police shot a man in Streatham, south London. The attacker was a convicted terrorist who had recently been released from prison. He injured three people during the attack. In December 2019, two people were fatally stabbed near London Bridge. The attacker was also a convicted terrorist who had recently been released following a sentence of imprisonment. The Streatham attacker was reported by the BBC to have “refused to engage with attempts to turn him away from violence” whilst in prison. The London Bridge attacker had attended two counter-terrorism programmes during his eight-year prison sentence and following his release. 

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said that the Government had been confronted “with some hard truths about how [it] deal[s] with terrorist offenders” following the London Bridge attack. The Prison Officers’ Association also said that a “fundamental review” of deradicalisation programmes in the UK was needed.  

Has radicalisation in prisons increased? 

Extremism in prisons is not a new concern. In 2016, Ian Acheson led a review into Islamist extremism in prisons, probation and youth justice. The then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, commissioned the review. The review found that Islamist extremism in prisons was growing. It called for a central strategy to monitor and counter this extremism.  

In March 2020, Baroness Hussein-Ece (Liberal Democrat) questioned the Government about steps it was taking to address radicalisation in prisons in England and Wales. She suggested there was evidence that showed the “overcrowded and “understaffed” prison system was failing to rehabilitate and deradicalise terrorist prisoners. The Government said it used tailored interventions and a network of counterterrorism prison and probation specialists to facilitate disengagement. For example, the Government has, amongst other things, recently recruited 22 specially trained imams to engage with Islamist extremist prisoners and assist the delivery of the programmes.  

Following the Streatham attack, former chief prosecutor Nair Afzal spoke of the need to have effective rehabilitation processes in place. Mr Afzal said:  

[…] there is a real problem with deradicalisation and disengagement programmes. […] There’s no formal mechanism to risk assess [prisoners], they will commit this crime unless something is done about this in prison. Yes, longer sentences will have an impact, but it just delays the inevitable.  

What are the UK deradicalisation programmes? 

There are several deradicalisation programmes in the UK for those who have been involved in extremist activity. This includes the ‘Healthy Identity Intervention’ and the ‘Desistence and Disengagement Programme’. The ‘Channel’ programme provides support to those identified as vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism.  

Healthy Identity Intervention 

The Healthy Identity Intervention (‘HII’) is one of the main programmes. It was one of the first behaviour offender programmes to be delivered to extremists in England and Wales.  

HII seeks to address two areas: the reasons why people are motivated to offend, and the beliefs that enable them to offend. The programme aims to prevent extremist offending by minimising an individual’s engagement within a specific group or ideology. 

The intervention is delivered on a one-to-one basis. The programme is open to those convicted of Islamist terrorism offences and those jailed for “extreme right-wing violence”. 

Desistence and Disengagement Programme 

The Desistance and Disengagement Programme (‘DDP’) is another deradicalisation intervention. It forms part of the Prevent strand of the Contest strategy (‘Contest’). Contest is the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Contest has four strands for countering terrorism: Prevent, Pursue, Protect and Prepare. Prevent aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.  

DDP supplements HII. DDP provides a range of “intensive, tailored interventions and support designed to tackle drivers of radicalisation”. The programme includes mentoring, psychological support, theological and ideological advice. The Government said DDP is designed to introduce “protective factors” to support individuals to disengage from terrorism and reintegrate into society. DDP can be offered to prisoners and those released on licence.  

Channel programme 

The Channel programme (‘Channel’) provides support to individuals who are identified as vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism. It is available within communities and is not specific to prisons. There are some instances where Channel is available to individuals serving a prison sentence. Circumstances include where an individual is shortly due to be released and there is a need to put appropriate support in place.   

Individuals can be referred by anyone, including by a family member or colleague. Referrals are assessed by a panel who decides what support can be offered. Participation in Channel is voluntary and not a criminal sanction.  

Programme evaluations 

HM Prison and Probation Service (‘HMPPS’) piloted HII in 2011. The results of the pilot said that HII had “overwhelmingly positive” reactions from participants and facilitators. However, no full evaluation of HII has been completed. In 2018, a process evaluation of the HII pilot was published. HMPPS confirmed that it was developing an impact evaluation of HII to “explore outcomes over the longer term and across national delivery”. Christopher Dean, a forensic psychologist involved in creating HII, was reported by the BBC to have said:  

HII could not currently be tested like other rehabilitation programmes […] because there were too few offenders to get a scientifically-robust assessment of what worked.   

The BBC has also reported that no evaluation of the DDP programme has been undertaken since its launch in 2016. Government officials say that the schemes have not been in operation for long enough for the results to be assessed. A government spokesperson was reported by the BBC to have said:  

All [of] our offender behaviour programmes are monitored, evaluated and kept under constant review to ensure that they are effective in reducing reoffending and protecting the public.  

The Home Office commissioned an evaluative study of deradicalisation programmes in 2018. The study, conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team, reported that 95% of deradicalisation programmes were “ineffective”. Following the findings, Diane Abbott, the then Shadow Home Secretary, asked the Home Secretary to publish the findings of the study. Ms Abbott also made reference to the Prevent strategy being a “tainted brand”. Ms Abbott said:  

I suggest that those two facts—that Prevent is a tainted brand and that so many of the deradicalisation programmes are ineffective—are not unrelated.  

In 2019, the Government announced an independent review of Prevent. The review will look at different aspects of the delivery of Prevent, including a review of the Channel process. Lord Carlile left his post as independent reviewer in December 2019. The Government is still to announce who will lead the review.  

A Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (‘CREST’) guide previously highlighted the challenges of assessing the success of interventions such as deradicalisation programmes. It said the complexity and diverse nature of extremist motivations makes it difficult to create broad evaluation measures.  

What are the next steps?  

The Government announced a £90 million package of measures to counter extremism in January 2020. As part of this package, £3 million is for specialist intervention. This includes counter-terrorism programmes and intervention centres. The Government also said that prison officers will receive training to help them respond to incidents.  

The Government also committed to introducing a new Counter-Terrorism Bill during the first 100 days of the new government. Amongst other things, it said the bill would “overhaul the terrorist licensing regime”. The bill would also increase the number of specialist counter-terrorism probation officers.  

The bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 20 May 2020. It was debated at second reading on 9 June 2020 and has now been sent to a Public Bill Committee, which is due to report by 14 July 2020.  

The Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020 became law in February 2020. The Government said that the purpose of the Act was to ensure that terrorist offenders were not automatically released on licence before the end of their custodial term without the Parole Board’s prior agreement. During the second reading debate in the House of Lords, peers highlighted a need to keep the effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes under continuous review.  

The potential impact that the coronavirus pandemic may have on the timetable for introducing the Government’s counter-terrorism package remains unknown. The Government announced measures to protect NHS services from becoming overwhelmed by a coronavirus outbreak in prisons. Measures include temporarily releasing low-risk offenders on licence where they are close to their release date.