TACT Offenders: Where we must go from here

[Updated: 5th February 2020 following Government plans to retrospectively move the sentencing goalposts for terrorist offenders]

Recently released from prison for Terrorism Act (TACT) offences there are many people like Sudesh Amman, the 20 year old Terrorist who, having hijacked Islam and claimed it wrongly as his cause, now lays dead in the above pixelated image on a London street; good riddance I say, and it’s not often you’ll hear me say that when it comes to offenders.

The media coverage so far has focused on what journalists see as the critical undermining of how we deal with TACT offenders – specifically why they are subject to automatic release dates – but focusing on automatic release dates is not even half the story, and neither does it scratch the surface of the true depth of the problem.

It starts with how we sentence and classify TACT offenders, where we then locate them in our prisons – and crucially for how long we keep them there.

Currently we use Security Categories to classify prisoners according to the risk that they might escape and the danger they would pose to the public if an escape by them were to succeed. But these Categories are way out of date, unchanged in the half century since they were introduced in the mid 1960’s they bear no relation to the world we live in today.

For most prisoners – what the Man on the Clapham Omnibus would call the ‘common criminal’ – it’s right to focus on the danger to the public if that person were to escape, but by failing to classify TACT offenders differently, by placing no focus at all on the danger TACT offenders pose to other prisoners who they can radicalise while wandering around freely inside our prisons unchecked, we misread the situation completely.

In radicalising others inside our prisons TACT offenders are being allowed to create ticking time bombs to be released themselves on an unsuspecting public further down the road.

That has to end – TACT offenders represent a virus inside our prisons that we currently allow to circulate, unchecked, unidentified and without warning; we need to realise we are at war with these people, who seek to destroy our communities and way of life, and respond accordingly.

How?

Identification has to come first.

We need a Security Category specifically for TACT offenders – and once they’ve been identified that needs to result in allocation to a separate system within our prisons to deal with them – and it wouldn’t take much, we could actually have both within days.

We already have the TACT Separation Centres set up, it’s just that they are not used enough and there are far too few of them – of the three that were opened at Frankland, Full Sutton and Woodhill prisons, Frankland currently has four prisoners, Full Sutton while originally holding some now has none at all, and the one at Woodhill which sat empty for two years, has been closed completely.

The criteria for Separation Centre selection were: to safeguard national security; to prevent the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism; to prevent the dissemination of views or beliefs that might encourage or induce others to commit any such act or offence, whether in prison or otherwise; or to protect or safeguard others from such views or beliefs.

A change to Security Categorisation could happen in 24 hours with a simple amendment to Prison Service Instructions 39, 40 and 41 of 2011 to introduce a new Category and regime consequences – the legal power to do this already exists in Section 47 of the Prison Act 1952, and Rule 7(1) of the Prison Rules made under that section.

It just requires an acknowledgement that such change is needed – which the Prime Minister seems to have accepted – and the cahunas to get on with it too which time will show if he possesses.

By just focusing on the issue of automatic release for TACT offenders we miss the much bigger and far more dangerous picture – and the recent statement that TACT offenders currently in prison will (if emergency legislation succeeds) be held until the two-thirds of sentence point and then released only with specialist Parole Board consent, is destined for legal challenges that I have to admit I hope succeed.

In future all TACT offenders should be given indeterminate sentences, in the same way as we currently impose discretionary life sentences where the mental element involved in the offending makes the safe-to-release point unclear – but that doesn’t mean you can move the sentencing regime goalposts mid-sentence however politically expedient that course of action may appear.

Letting them out on time, in accordance with the regime under which they were originally sentenced, is the price we have to pay for democracy – and the increased costs associated with their management after release is also the penalty we have pay too; for not getting it right first time.

At the very least, if we are to do this and effectively re-sentence those who are already serving TACT sentences, then there is a moral obligation surely to go back to the trial judge and ask what effect in custodial terms this would have had on their sentencing. It’s true, it may not have affected the sentence passed at all – but I challenge anyone to say it couldn’t have done.

We need to remove the pixels from our own view of this picture and see the reality of what we are facing – and more importantly, how we must deal with it.

That means for anyone convicted of a TACT offence an indefinite sentence, in much the same way as we impose a discretionary life sentence currently on those where a mental element to the offending makes the safe-to-release point presently unclear.

It means a recognition of the danger TACT offenders represent inside our prisons and why a separate system needs to be created to cater for them – a system whose focus is clear, whose mission is to reduce risk and reintegrate, and which has both the financial and manpower resources ring-fenced to deliver it.

It means we as a society have to face up to the unpixelated fact that terrorism is not something that just happens on London Bridge or Streatham High Road, it has its roots right inside our prisons.

We have to confront that fact head-on by keeping TACT offenders in prison forever if necessary once we have them there, rather than release them to cause the havoc they are today responsible for far too often and which places everyone at risk.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and Editor of The Prison Oracle, the definitive UK prisons web site.