Life in Belmarsh

Tam Hussein has written a fascinating article about prisoner radicalization in the UK. It includes long excerpts from interviews with former inmates at Belmarsh prison, a high-security facility which houses many British terrorism convicts. Testimonies of jihadi prison life are relatively rare (though exceptions exist), so the article is worth quoting at length. The emphasis in bold is mine. 

Hussein’s main source is a man named “Ahmed”:

I met Ahmed in an Italian Gelateria in Westbourne Grove, West London. […]

He’s done six years of prison, two years were spent in the High Security Unit, Belmarsh or as it is known by its inmates, the Unit. He has shared his association time with some of Britain’s most notorious killers and Terror-Charge prisoners from Kenny Noye, Colin Gunn to Dhiren Barot, the man who plotted to take down the New York Stock exchange and others like Muktar Said Ibrahim responsible for the 21 July plot of 2005. [….]

Ahmed describes a rather unpleasant facility:

“The whole place is made of metal and the guards check on you every hour making a note on whether you are still there. The sound of the little window opening drives you nuts at first.”

The Unit, he recalls “was designed to break you down.” Everything is bad. In the morning you are given a small box of cereals, lunch is merely one of those shadows of reality that Plato talks about and dinner need not be discussed. […]

It is twenty two or three hour lock up, with a small square where you can do some exercise. But the twenty yards to the exercise area takes a full twenty minutes to get to, the prisoner is escorted, buzzed through thirteen doors and patted down thirteen doors. Ahmed finds it absurd but then again, considering the company he keeps, it is understandable. The gym is “a shambles designed in a way so that the weights can’t be used as a weapon”. The library consists of a set of shelves on wheels which is called without irony, a mobile library. At the Unit, according to Ahmed, the wardens or ‘screws’ don’t punish you, they just behave vindictively. In the summer they make the water scalding hot so it peals your skin off and in the winter it is ice cold and the wardens always blame the maintenance crews. “We all knew” says Ahmed, “that this was just a game, because the other spurs had nice temperate water to shower in during association.”

There’s tension with the non-Muslim inmates:

Cerie Bullivant who spent 2007-2008 in Belmarsh and Wandsworth on remand seemed to confirm Ahmed’s view:

“I would be praying during Ramadan with another brother in my cell and they would kick off about it. Whilst in the other cell there would be four non-Muslim inmates playing music and it would be absolutely fine. It goes both ways though, during Ramadan Muslim inmates would get special food packs to break their fasts and the non-Muslim inmates would complain. There was a lot of tension between the Muslim and the non-Muslim inmates.”

Inmates can be punished with heavy-handed searches:

If they do want to punish an inmate then they send in the DST, Detailed Search Team. Ahmed’s face changes into one of contempt and laughter as he recalled them:

“They come in dressed from top to bottom in black, they are often in riot gear, usually at some odd hour, three in the morning. As soon as they enter, they step up to you. They rip up your cell, I have been raided many times, they pour shampoo on your clothes, they took my Quran CD given to me by the Prison chaplain and they scratched it. Why? What did the CD ever do to you? I can’t forget the Quran CD given to me by the prison imam. They steal your papers. They check your arse…you bend over and they stick their heads down and look into your arse [laughs]…sometimes with a mirror what sort of human does that looking for a phone in your arse!? If they want to beat you up they will take you to the segregation unit, and over there they will beat you up because it’s isolated.”

The Islamist inmates keep themselves busy and see themselves as political prisoners:

Prison life is not all boredom though, there are things you can do in prison. Ahmed read and worked on his case. A lot of T-Charge prisoners work on their case or their appeals. “As long as they are in prison there is hope” he says because one day they can get out. Many of the T-Charge prisoners keep their spirits up by worshipping because in here you needed God the most. Here T-Charge prisoners see themselves and are viewed by the rest, not as common criminals but political prisoners. They are kings without crowns.

They also distance themselves from “regular” criminals and try to behave better:

Bullivant recalls a story in Wandsworth:

“There used to be these Algerians who used to bring in drugs into the prisons and do lines [taking Cocaine]. Because I was a convert and a T-Charge they would tell me that if anyone messes with me I should tell them because they would kill them…there’s always been a hierarchy in prison.”

The T-Charge prisoners see themselves as different. They don’t hustle, they don’t carry on like “low life crims”.

Bullivant says:

They have manners and are generous: One brother would save up all his money and buy sauces, sweets and food for Ramadan and then give them out to non-Muslims and Muslims during the month. He won a lot of friends that way.”

They see themselves as part of a long history of Islamists imprisoned for their beliefs: 

They also have examples to emulate, these men are fully aware that many of the Prophets spent time in prison, Joseph in the dungeons of the Pharaoh, Jonah in the belly of the Leviathan and so their situation relatively speaking doesn’t seem that bad. Moreover Syed Qutb, Omar Mokhtar, Malcolm X, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; Muslims from all over the spectrum whether that be freedom fighters, radicals, extremists and terrorists have all done bird. So for some inmates it reconfirmed the very rightness of their cause. They were following in the right footsteps. Especially as there is a well known Prophetic tradition that says when God loves someone, He afflicts them with tribulation, and so their incarceration is interpreted as such. […]

Ahmed also describes conversions to Islam:

When an inmate converts the first priority are the basics, how to pray, how to make ablution, how to recite verses of the Quran. And so the convert would go to the T-Charge inmates during Association, the hour when inmates get to socialise. According to Ahmed, he never witnessed any radicalisation of new converts. The most these T-Charge prisoners did was to teach the new convert the basics. As Bullivant puts it: “That’s not radicalisation, that’s brotherhood.”

There is a hierarchy among the Islamist inmates based on “righteousness” and charisma:

A convert like Omar would search out the most ‘righteous’ T-Charge prisoner because they were different in the same way the Protagonist from Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead admired the Chechens for their political principles and upright characters. He like Omar Jones, recognised that those prisoners were there due to their beliefs, not because they were lowlife criminals that had murdered, raped and looted for the sake of criminal gain. Their manners were usually better, they didn’t swear, they offered hospitality for three days whenever a new ‘brother’ came in to the ward as is Muslim custom.

They looked after you like Abbè Faria did to Edmond Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo. And perhaps the most important point here is that Omar Jones instinctively recognised that T-Charge prisoners were on the right side of the fence. In other words, they were not employees like prison wardens or chaplains and imams. One should not underestimate the role of the charismatic personality, as Haroro Ingram has pointed out. Islamic tradition fosters charismatic leadership and the idea of transformative charisma. Zarqawi inspired intense loyalty in prison precisely because he took the punishment on behalf of his group whenever the group would receive one. It was not his learning but his loyalty to his men. 

Prison imams are not respected at all:

It didn’t matter if you were the most knowledgable prison imam, the simple fact was you were on the wrong side. It’s not that the imams didn’t do their jobs, they started off on the wrong side of the fence in the first place. It takes a special type of Prison chaplain to get through to inmates. How they could even influence Muslims, converts and others was beyond Ahmed. All they were good for it seems was for official matters, you registered your conversion with him so you got on the Halal list.

As Bullivant says:

“No one trusted the prison imams. You were polite and respectful and you went to him when you needed a Quran or a prayer carpet. On Fridays you didn’t go to listen to the Friday Khutba [Sermon] but to catch up with the rest of the brothers from the other wards. It was the only day you could see each other.”

New converts gravitate toward the respected inmates, not toward the prison imams

Ahmed doesn’t deny that radicalisation does happen but questions the way it has been portrayed in the media. According to him, T-Charge prisoners become symbols and reference points for the convert prisoners. These men would be their example and guide for their time in prison, not the prison chaplain who according to Ahmed, was well meaning but was “mostly hit and miss”.

Few people talk politics for fear of surveillance:

Bullivant, speaking about remand prisons, explains it in a different way. “The Brother’s talked about dīnī [religious] stuff but they rarely talked about politics. Everyone was paranoid that the cell was bugged.” In any case, he adds, “in remand you had hope of getting out…politics didn’t come into it. Most inmates will do dawah [proselytise Islam] because what else can you do? You have nothing else. But of course everyone was aware of the injustices outside. It was unspoken, no need to say it.” Religious proselytisation might be seen as radicalisation by the authorities, but proselytisation happened in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead and will continue for as long as prison exists. For Muslim inmates, it wasn’t a case of directly recruiting inmates to a cause, rather it was viewed within a religious architecture: souls needed saving even in prison, perhaps even more so. Ahmed recalls one of the inmates:

“An Afro-Caribbean brother, the nicest guy in the world. The brother had beautiful akhlāq [manners]. He used to be a hitman, bodies turned up all over Europe wherever he went. After his conversion he became the most pious brother I knew.” […]

Some seem to convert out of a genuine desire to turn their lives around:

This is confirmed by Ahmed too, if an inmate converts to Islam he is immediately viewed as radicalised. But sometimes they become devout purely on their own as he recalls:

“There was one young brother, he was half-Pakistani, half-English, killed a man because he put his hands on his sister’s thighs. He stabbed people left right and centre and ended up in the Whitemore unit, he offered to deal with anyone who threatened T-charge prisoners, ‘do you want me to stab him up?’ he used to ask me and I would calm the brother down. But then I received letters from him in perfect written Arabic, he had become fluent in written Arabic in eight months, he had taught himself.”

Others seem to convert for social reasons:

Of course some converted to Islam because they wanted to be part of the gang that had the most clout, the ones who could protect you. But usually you could spot those ones. Ahmed had little respect for those kinds of prisoners. According to him it showed on their faces, in their eyes they were low life scums who used Islam as veil. No one bought the argument that their drug dealing and criminal activities was a tool to harm the infidel enemy. There was no conviction in these men and he didn’t respect it.

Like in other prisons, there are hierarchies, and information spreads fast:

Neither Ahmed nor Bullivant deny that T-Charge prisoners ran things in prison. Cream rises to the top and there are emirs, albeit unofficial ones in British prisons just as much as there are capos, dons, bosses in prisons all around the world. Networks do exist. Word spreads pretty quickly amongst prisoners, who is coming through to which wing and why. During Association, even if a murder or a robbery had occurred on the outside, the prisoners would know about it and sometimes they even knew who did it before the police.

Some emirs excercise power through punitive violence:

If an emir didn’t want a certain prisoner in his wing he could make it such that the prisoner would be segregated or moved to a different wing. If there’s an inmate who attacked a ‘brother‘ and is being transferred to his wing, the emir would ensure that the inmate gets beaten up, stabbed or smashed with a contraption that resembles a morning star made out of two cans of tuna in a sock as punishment for that transgression. They might wait for the prisoner to get settled in and one day pour boiling sugar syrup on him. The syrup behaves a bit like napalm and sticks your skin scalding it permanently. Ahmed remembers a story in Long Lartin prison:

“Some Australian guy messed around with Sheikh Abu Qatada in the gym, he was saying something about his beard in Long Lartin, he was mocking it, a brother saw it, that evening he had several litres of boiled butter over his head and face and his whole face was melted and he was about to be released as well- that sort of reinforced the hierarchy

It is not done with malice just sheer ingenuity. It would have been better if the inmate had been sensible and asked to be put into the segregation unit immediately. The consequences? Ahmed laughs “some get taken to segregation and the rest of us get a few days lock up and privileges get taken away and then life moves on. Nothing changes. Usually there’s little evidence to charge the inmate.” It is no wonder one former disgruntled prison warden told me: “We don’t run the ward the prisoners let us run it”.

There are ways to get back at wardens:

If you were a warden than you might get ‘shitted’ on- a technical term referring to a prison warden getting human faeces on their heads, usually the offending turd is disguised in a prison sock and smashed on to his head or put into a bottle and poured on him from above.

Newcomers are given a warm reception:

On the other hand, if you are a new T-Charge prisoner or just a normal prisoner, nervous about what prison life is like, the emir and the ‘brothers’ get together to cook and host the prisoner for three days to make him feel at ease with his surroundings. An intense loyalty towards the emir and the senior ‘brother’ is built up as a consequence.

And Islamist inmates can serve as mediator between regular criminal factions:

Moreover, the T-Charge prisoners are also seen as mediators because they are not involved in the bitter disputes between rival criminal gangs. They are seen as neutral arbitrators and are often brought in to resolve disputes. This again gives them added status and importance amongst inmates. This is not un-similar to the way the young Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi behaved when he was incarcerated in Camp Bucca, Iraq.

The article goes on to reflect on the problem of prison radicalization and what can be done about it. It’s all very sensible stuff, but outside the scope of the Bored Jihadi. Read the whole article here