At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun. All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate. Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".
The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove. Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling. In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.
As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere. Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy". This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges. It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.
The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors. Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so. As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.
Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return. She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage. Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.
Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria. The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism. She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack. Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.
This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia. We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution. Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy. Nor does she deserve any for that decision.
What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made. While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care. Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious. Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds? Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?
Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did? Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail? Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?
Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape. You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years. Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will. Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home. As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination. Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS. Now she'll rot in a cell. Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.
Labels: criminal justice system, Islamic State, Michael Gove, Nick Hardwick, politics, prisons, radicalisation, Syria, Tareena Shakil