Terrorists in Prison: The Punitive Shift

Terrorists in Prison: The Punitive Shift

When it comes to terrorists in prison, the public and policymakers alike tend to punitive prison policies. Because prisons walls often avert the public eye, it is all the more important to avoid this tendency.

‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of a society’

– Sir Winston Churchill

Over the past months there has been an increasing call for tougher prison policies for terrorists worldwide. Indonesia, after the terrorist attack in Jakarta early January 2016, has drafted plans to incarcerate individuals without trial for a maximum of three months. Kenya, in the wake of the attacks by Al-Shabaab in January 2016, which led to the death of 62 Kenyan troops, proposed to build a separate prison for violent extremist offenders, following the US example of Guantanamo Bay. The British government is considering a similar setup for convicted Islamist terrorist prisoners – something that has been dubbed “British Alcatraz” by the media. These ideas signify what has been labelled the ‘punitive shift’. This should prompt alarm, as we know that when it comes to dealing with terrorism, it is often fear that drives these types of policies.

There is doubt and there is hope. On the one hand, a growing emphasis among policymakers and public opinion in the West on the punitive – as opposed to the correctional aspect of detention – is demonstrated in an increasing resort to imprisonment, longer prison sentences and a return to more sober, Spartan, traditional forms of punishment.* This tendency, that has been described as the ‘punitive shift’, is a matter of concern, not just in those areas of the world where conflict is prevalent, arising in the aftermath of the Cold War, 9/11, the ‘Global War on Terror’ and most recently the Arab Spring and the rise of extremism in Syria and Iraq. Rather there are prisons in many parts of the world that fail to meet minimum prison standards. It is therefore not surprising there are reservations regarding the progress of the human rights paradigm in general and particularly in the case of prisons. On the other hand, the increasing emphasis on human rights in the second half of last century has shone a bright light on matters concerning the denial of civil liberties. In the case of prison conditions this has been explained as the accountability of governments to use detention cautiously, based on just cause and with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of all prisoners.

The treatment of prisoners, those who have become ’institutionalized outcasts‘ and count among the lowest and the most unpopular in society, has become a yardstick for judging the progress of civilization. As places of enforced incarceration, prisons are – because of their very purpose – susceptible to operating in ways that deprive individuals of certain human rights. This is all the more the case when they are not sufficiently supported (both materially and politically) and continuously monitored by governments. Politicians, policy makers and prison officials alike have a serious responsibility to guarantee the fair conduct of the prisoners in their care, a task that is all the more arduous when the powers they practice remain mostly hidden from the gaze of the public eye and the world’s media. When it comes to terrorists in prison, the temperature of the mood of the public and policymakers alike has given rise to punitive prison policies. Because prison walls often avert the public eye it is all the more important to prevent this punitive temperature from leading to feverish fear-based policies.

*) See Pratt, J., Brown, D., Brown, M., Hallsworth, S. & Morrison, W. The New Punitiveness: Trends, Theories, Perspectives (2005).