A not-so-super Supermax

The failure of deradicalisation in Australian prisons

Hamed El-Said

National security | Australia

28 November 2016

Poor or non-existent deradicalisation programs in Australia’s most high-security jails are having a detrimental effect not just on inmates but in the wider community, Hamed El-Said writes.

Junaid Thorn’s public statement last month that putting him in Goulburn’s Supermax prison has “given him more influence – despite being put there to reduce it”, must have come as a surprise to most Australians, including Australian counter-terrorism officials. After all, that is not what his incarceration was intended to achieve. It seems that Australian Government policies, or lack thereof, inside high-security prisons are counter-productive.

Prisons are places of vulnerabilities. While they have become schools of radicalisation and violent extremism in some instances, this need not always be the case. In some places, prisons have provided an opportunity for revision and self-reflection. The latter outcome, though, can only happen in the right environment, one that is designed and influenced by authorities’ prison strategies and policies.

Prisons should encourage inmates to undergo a process of revision and rethinking where they can be persuaded and convinced about their wrongdoing, and therefore motivated to change their way of thinking and lifestyle. They are also places where reintegration back into one’s family and society should be facilitated with minimum risks to public safety. I am not sure whether being in the Supermax prison increased Junaid’s influence as he claims. I could argue that Supermax neither triggers that required positive revisionist process, nor does it graduate inmates who are less radical.

During my visit to Goulburn Supermax in 2011, following an invitation from the Australian Government, I was impressed by the technical advancement and unique high-security standards of the facility. After spending a day there, I came out convinced that ‘prison radicalisation’ – a process in which some inmates are recruited by others and persuaded to adopt extreme views, including that violent measures must be taken for political or religious purposes both inside and outside correctional institutions – is impossible.

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Supermax inmates spend almost 95 per cent of their time alone and in their individual cells. A web of super-advanced digital security cameras strictly monitors every move prisoners make around the clock. They are only allowed to socialise for 60 minutes a week, and this is confined to two individuals at a time. Inside their individual cells, inmates spend most of their time reading carefully chosen religious books, cleaning, and watching TV.

Inmates can use their weekly socialisation session, which can be divided into two 30 minute segments, to either socialise with another inmate or exercise in the centre’s impressive sports facilities. Regardless of which option they choose, they are still closely monitored and watched by the prison authorities. How can ‘prison radicalisation’ occur in such circumstances? The answer is that it can’t.

But I was equally struck by how little understanding of the meaning and process of radicalisation Supermax’s security officials and first line personnel possessed. For example, conversion to Islam, a common religious practice in most correction centres around the world, is taken as a sign of radicalisation. And with plenty of time on their hands while in their individual cells, inmates shout, pass messages, use codes, and even try to smuggle in mobile phones. What else are they expected to do in the absence of any effective program to keep them busy revising their ideas, ideologies, and actions? These are some of the ways prisoners often express their unhappiness and dissatisfaction with their lonely prison environment. Like everyone else, prisoners need to communicate with their friends and families on the outside. When they can’t, they “complain and write tomes of reports on a daily basis against prison authorities in order to make our lives more difficult,” as one high-ranking Supermax security official told me on the day of my visit. The inmates are simply not kept busy enough doing more productive things.

It is difficult to fathom how ‘shouting’ from their cells or ‘passing messages’ would radicalise other inmates. Radicalisation is a far more complex process. As the same Supermax official told me, “Islamists are the best and most behaved inmates we have here. They obey rules and do what they are being told. They simply want to pass their time and return to their families.” It is a shame that such good behaviour, relatively speaking, is not capitalised on to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the community where the prisoners come from, at the very least.

There is a strong belief among many Australian officials, including many judges and prison authorities, that, despite contrary empirical evidence, ‘once radical then radical forever.’ As a result, Islamist inmates are locked up in high-security prisons for 15 or 20 years without any attempt to deradicalise them. Prison in Australia is simply seen as a punitive response, not a place for correction and rehabilitation, certainly not when it comes to Islamist inmates.

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Australian prisons lack any proper dialogue program to debate and discuss the rationale behind, and logic of, radical ideas with Islamist inmates. Likewise, there is no organised program of physical activity to maintain inmates’ health and sanity or create cordial relations between Islamist inmates and prison staff. They do not offer a mechanism to assure families that their sons and relatives are being looked after, or treated well and fairly. No strong chaplaincy-imam program exists to counter the radical narrative of some inmates. Educational opportunities and skills training for inmates in order to prepare them for life after prison are also absent in the supermax, as is any reintegration program to facilitate their return to society as good and law abiding citizens.

Junaid was very careful in choosing his words. He never claimed that he was radicalised inside Supermax or that he succeeded in radicalising other inmates while there. His exact words were: “They placed me there so I don’t have influence on other people. But when I came out, people know that you have been in Supermax and you have been through such an experience and that you were targeted for who you are, [and] that causes you to have even greater influence, so that pretty much backfired.”

What Junaid is trying to tell the Australian authorities is that their Supermax facility is not as super as they think it is: not only does it not deradicalise, on the contrary, it increases the radicalisation both of already incarcerated radical inmates, as well as members of their family and communities. Effective and successful deradicalisation programs are not only important for what happens inside prison facilities, but they are also important for their impact on the broader community.

Counter-terrorism authorities must extend their thinking beyond what goes on inside the wire, and prison strategists must address the impact of their policies, and the gaps in them, on what is happening outside it.

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