Long Lartin is a high-security prison, just north of Gloucester. Despite the serious crimes perpetrated by its inhabitants it does offer a range of outdoor activities, some of which may surprise you. For instance, a prison XV plays (or played) regular matches against the region's willing rugby clubs, including the one I used to played for (more of which later). Home fixtures only, of course.
A laudable effort at rehabilitation, I think. However, there's a difference between humane treatment and laxity. The Prison Service appears to have been rather too amenable as reported in yesterday's Sunday Times. Apparently, it's been allowing Islamists in high-security prisons - including Long Lartin - to propagandise, both within the facilities and to the wider world. Some of these terrorist ideologues, planners and operators have been given formal mentoring roles to other prisoners; others have been able to use phones to communicate with their co-conspirators and, in one instance, broadcast on an Islamist radio station. Nuts.
I find it infinitely depressing how stupid and supine the authorities can be in their treatment of Islamism. It's not just the Prison Service. Various police forces have behaved similarly, such as in Luton, as has the Foreign Office.
I imagine a large part of the rationale is to avoid alienating moderate Muslims. But these are often the voices raised most often in frustration when the extremists are given latitude. The authorities need to show a lead; if they don't it's difficult to criticise others for not doing so. We should be throwing the book at the extremists and rabble-rousers, forcefully and repeatedly. (But only figuratively, of course: cf. torture posts passim). The rise of the English Defence League is in good part a consequence of not doing so: it was founded in the wake of the police's failure to take the initiative over the original Luton protest (as prefigured in this post from May).
But back to Long Lartin. I wonder whether the rugby matches continue? The fixture doesn't appear on my old club's list for this season. Did security issues end them? As the prison currently provides a home to Abu Qatada, purportedly head of Al Qaida in Europe, it might be a reasonable move. Particularly as the stupidity/supineness of the authorities would probably prevent them from calling off a fixture against, say, a touring Pakistani team, an AQ Old Boys. Might send the wrong message.
It would be a shame if they have ended and not just for the prisoners; it's quite an experience for the visitors. My trip there certainly impressed on me how stark are the differences between a high security prison and the holiday camp of tabloid comparisons.
I visited when I'd just started to play adult rugby, so I was sixteen, seventeen. I was turning out for Cirencester 3rds, a very entertaining combination of young bloods and wise heads. We had to change in the car park and were allowed to take in no more than gumshields. It took a long time to get into the prison proper as there were so many gates to pass through, a search being conducted at each one. We were then led straight onto the pitch, around which a modest crowd had gathered.
The opposition were captained by a prison warder, a tough old bugger. The rest of the team were an unusual bunch. I was playing in the centre and my opposite number was shaven-headed with a full, frizzy greyish beard. He had vacantly pale eyes and was covered in home-made tattoos; his high-stepping running style showed off a couple of carefully-placed spider webs, one on each bony knee.
It was one of the scariest games I've played, even scarier than playing away against the six-fingered denizens of the Forest of Dean. Not at all violent. Just the knowledge you were playing - and in rugby this means intimately grappling - with mass murderers, rapists, terrorists and so on. I thanked God I was playing in the backs and so at a remove from the closely-fought action.
We drew, the right result for all sorts of reasons. After the match, the prison warder captain let us know he'd spotted Denis Nilson and a handful of Libyan terrorists on the touchlines. They hadn't been very animated.