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Better ways to counter terror than 'mini max' prison

14 June 2017

A Goulburn facility for radical inmates could be costly to establish and difficult to test for effectiveness, writes counter-radicalisation expert Hussain Nadim. 

Goulburn prison is the site of a proposed 'mini max' facility to house radical inmates. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Goulburn prison is the site of a proposed 'mini max' facility for radical inmates. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The NSW government has unveiled a new $47 million initiative to fight violent extremism by setting up a new "mini max" jail within the Goulburn's Supermax facility. The idea is to separate radical inmates from rest in order to avoid prisons becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation.

The move comes against a backdrop of incidents of violent extremism in major Western cities around the world. It raises several questions regarding the government's efforts to counter violent extremism. The first being, whether its programs deliver and at what price?

This isn't the first $47 million program that NSW government has launched. In 2015, it came up with a $47 million initiative to run de-radicalisation program at the school level to identify young kids (basically Muslim youth) who may be showing signs of radicalisation. This is a highly discriminatory approach that risks stigmatising students and cutting them off from the positive socialising effects of the school system.

The multimillion dollar program has been in place for two years but every single government official or program manager I have talked to is unsure if it has delivered any results at all – and for a good reason. There is yet no effective way to gauge the results of de-radicalisation programs anywhere in the world.


The NSW government needs to provide a breakdown on exactly how the money is being spent and how the effectiveness of this facility will be measured.
Hussain Nadim

Essentially, what it means is that the government has absolutely no clue if the millions of dollars it is spending is keeping people safe or creating more insecurity. Yet, that has not deterred it from earmarking another $47 million on a program that appears to be equally misdirected.

The "mini max" jail is going to house 45 inmates already convicted of terrorism-related offences; the number is expected to grow to 75. That's $47 million for 75 inmates. Is the taxpayer getting value for money?

The NSW government needs to provide a breakdown to the public on exactly how the money is being spent and how the effectiveness of this facility will be measured.

How much more protection for the public will be provided by this million-dollar facility than could be provided by the current approach of isolation and close surveillance in an existing facility? The government should not escape scrutiny on this "big ticket" item by cloaking it in the garb of 'fighting terrorism".

The "mini max" aims to deal with already hardened, convicted radicals and terrorists – not to deter new ones from conducting Manchester-style lone wolf attacks – a surprising shift in focus to a lesser problem given the low numbers in jail and the small numbers radicalised inside, five over the last decade.

With so many millions earmarked, the government needs to unveil a cohesive strategy for countering violent extremism – if, of course, there is one.

I have previously argued and will reiterate the point; to achieve results in countering violent extremism, millions or billions of dollars aren't needed.

It's a social and political problem that has to be tackled with the right communication from the very top of the political establishment. Reaching out to Muslim communities, especially the most vulnerable Muslim youth, is likely to be the best way to counter the terrorist propaganda.

For example, there are several Muslim youth organisations that want to work with the government, but the government doesn't involve them in relevant policy discussions.

The government needs to encourage Muslim youth to seek careers in policy making and politics. This is critical because many Muslim youth feel they are marginalised "second-class citizens" and believe their future in Australia is bleak.

If there were more opportunities to work in government it would help Australian Muslims integrate, and create success stories that can inspire other young Muslims.

Political leaders should be attending Muslim youth events. It would send a strong signal to counter the militants narrative that the West is engaged in a war against Islam.

Young Australian Muslims are Australia's first line of defence against violent extremism, but the government needs to recognise and harness this valuable resource. The NSW government should set up a Muslim youth advisory board that can regularly advise it on handling different issues related to the Muslim community and violent extremism.

The NSW high security unit is likely to be a white elephant. To fight extremism, Australia needs to think beyond infrastructure.

Hussain Nadim is a University of Sydney doctoral researcher and director of the South Asia Study Group. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 12. 


Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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