Australia’s SuperMax jail, where Islam thrives

Australia’s SuperMax jail, where Islam thrives, by Paul Maley.

A special unit in this prison houses Australia’s most dangerous extremists. We gain rare access and discover a ticking time bomb.

Five times a day, Goulburn’s SuperMax goes quiet. The din of jail life stops as the 30-odd Muslim inmates angle their bottle-green prayer mats towards Mecca. … A few hundred metres away, in the general prison, dozens more inmates are doing the same thing. …

Out in the main prison population, religion is a source of comfort or just another diversion from the drudgery of jail life. Not so in the ­SuperMax. Here, religion remains an obsession. It is the ­reason most of the inmates were locked up and, as the years tick over on their time here, it’s what’s kept them going.

Anyone who thinks Australia does not have a problem with prison radicalisation should visit SuperMax during prayer time. They are all here. The names and faces behind a thousand headlines heralding mayhem and death. And with a handful of exceptions, the entire population of the SuperMax observes this daily ritual. They all believe the same thing: “There is no God but Allah and this is where He wants me.” For now. …

In some countries, radical inmates are dispersed across the prison system, an approach that is supposed to make deradicalisation easier. But here in NSW they are grouped together, quarantined from other prisoners like patients stricken with a deadly virus. The idea is they can’t radicalise other ­prisoners and in practice it works well enough. They radicalise each other instead. The names of prisoners are written on cards outside their cells along with the details of their sentence. Virtually all are of Middle Eastern background. …

This is how SuperMax works. Not with muscle or threats but with a rigid adherence to rules and discipline. Strip a life down to its rudiments, take away a man’s contact with the outside world, his possessions, his freedom, force him to seek permission if he wants to hold his wife’s hand during a visit – narrow his life to the point where the most exciting thing that can happen in six months is a visit from a journalist – and you don’t need phone books or rubber hoses to keep order. All you need is extra milk rations. …

Multiculturalism completely defeated:

And SuperMax’s population is getting younger, much younger. Across the fence in Goulburn jail proper, the prison population is divided by race or religion. There is a Muslim yard, an Islander yard, an Aboriginal yard and an Asian yard. Multi­culturalism might work in the real world but in ­Goulburn it is segregation that keeps the peace.

In SuperMax, the division is even simpler: al-Qa’ida and Islamic State. The older, sentenced prisoners support al-Qa’ida. The younger ones, energised by the Syrian jihad, support Islamic State. Two tribes. They don’t get along. …

Deradicalisation?

Corrective Services NSW offers a voluntary deradicalisation program … For the older terrorists, the point is moot. They’re too far gone. A few won’t talk to the staff anymore, let alone participate in deradicalisation programs. …

But for the younger ones, the picture is different. Ryan estimates that if all the unsentenced prisoners in SuperMax were released tomorrow, around half would never touch a Koran again: “They’re not that committed to the cause.” He thinks some of the younger prisoners might shed their extremist ideology if they could be separated from the older, harder ideologues early into their sentence. He describes what it’s like when prisoners first arrive in SuperMax. “They’ll be down in Unit Seven all by themselves and you can talk to them there,” he says. “After that ­initial shock, they’re polite. Then you get them up to the other deck with other influences and that’s when you lose them.”

Outside the SuperMax, Islamic radicalization is not a problem:

Severin says that outside the SuperMax there is no widespread problem of radicalisation across the prison system, and by all accounts he is right. Of the 13,000 inmates confined in NSW, there have been just four confirmed cases where inmates have been radicalised, he says. That’s almost certainly an underestimate, but it’s hard to make the case that the prison system is teeming with murderous jihadis.

What happens when they get out:

But as SuperMax starts disgorging its inmates, the risk to the community will be profound. … Thinking of the rangy Lebanese boy with the chest full of tatts prowling his cell like a caged animal, it is difficult not to believe we are kicking the can down the road. What happens when we get to the end?

hat-tip Stephen Neil