Using Specialised Prison Units to Manage Violent Extremists: Lessons from Northern Ireland

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The use of specialised prison units (SPUs) as a means of countering violent extremism and radicalisation is growing in popularity in many jurisdictions. Yet, little is known about their ability to prevent radicalisation in the long-term, limit the spread of violent extremism or promote de-radicalisation and disengagement. This paper begins to explore these issues by reflecting on the over 40 years of experience that Northern Ireland (NI) has had in this area. It is argued that the international community tends to have an incomplete understanding of: 1) why SPUs were created and installed in NI, 2) how their regime, conditions and underlying rationale changed over time and 3) the long-term consequences that SPUs have had on the spread of violent extremism, de-radicalisation and disengagement. This paper seeks to make an original contribution to this literature by highlighting the role psychological, situational, social and political factors played in shaping the effectiveness of SPUs in NI. By providing a more in-depth analysis of why SPUs in NI entrenched extremism rather than promoted disengagement or de-radicalisation, other jurisdictions will be encouraged to reflect on how these factors may affect the success of their own SPUs in countering violent extremism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)539-557
Number of pages19
JournalTerrorism and Political Violence
Issue number3
Early online date29 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Terrorism
  • Imprisonment
  • De-radicalization
  • Disengagment
  • Countering Violent Extremism
  • Specialised Prison Units


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