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“Anyone who thinks Australia does not have a problem with prison radicalisation should visit SuperMax during prayer time”

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“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.'”

“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.”

How does Australia think this is going to work out? What are these men going to be doing when they’re released (if they are)? What about their friends and family? This is a ticking time bomb for Australia, and the world.

“To the SuperMax,” by Paul Maley, The Weekend Australian, April 1-2, 2017:

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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. Standing alone in their narrow cells, they raise their arms in supplication and, with eyes closed, recite the holy incantations of the Surah Al-Fatiha, the first verse of the Holy Koran and the beginning of the Muslims’ Divine Communion with God. Bismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem. Alhamdu lillaahi Rabbil ’aalameen…

A few hundred metres away, in the general prison, dozens more inmates are doing the same thing. Under a soggy grey sky, they kneel in the exercise yard and pray as guards carrying high-powered assault rifles patrol the 5.5m-high walls around them. There’s no trouble today; there rarely is during prayers.

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.

When Islamic State broke through the Syrian border in June 2014, annexing northern Iraq and declaring a caliphate, Australia’s prisons filled with a new generation of Muslim extremists ensnared by the ISIS ideology of do-it-yourself violence. In ­Australia, 62 people were charged after 27 separate counter-terrorism operations in little more than two years. A problem that once lurked in mosques, chat rooms and obscure prayer halls was transferred, en masse, into the prison system. That was the good news. The bad news is they are more dangerous than they have ever been, their radical beliefs entrenched in the same system that locked them up in the first place. And soon, some of them will be up for release. A system that is supposed to remove threats from the community is, in fact, incubating them for future generations.

The first thing you notice about Goulburn’s High Risk Management Correctional Centre, to give the SuperMax its official name, is that it looks nothing like a prison. Built in 2001 in the NSW city 90km north-east of Canberra as a place to house the state’s most violent offenders, it is ­concealed behind the soaring walls and grim ­Victorian façade of Goulburn’s historic jail, a ­fortress within a fortress. The corridors are wide, the lights are bright and cherry-red doors with observation windows provide access to every cell. There is no mess hall, no shower block. No ­tattooed cons pumping iron in the yard. Common areas don’t exist in SuperMax. On some days it might be ­possible to walk the entire length of the prison without encountering a single inmate.

Glen Piazza, SuperMax’s manager of security, is our guide for this rare glimpse into Australia’s most secretive prison. Piazza is an affable 50-something who’s been working in Corrections for nearly 30 years, five in the pressure-cooker of SuperMax. He’s got a broad Australian accent and a black sense of humour. “Remember, if you get raped, it’s just jail sex,” he says, as we’re about to enter the prison. You get the feeling it’s not the first time he’s used this line.

SuperMax is divided into three units, Piazza explains. Unit Nine is where unsentenced prisoners are kept. Unit Eight holds convicted prisoners serving out long sentences up to 20 years or more. Unit Seven houses prisoners for the first 14 days of their sentence while they are being assessed. Nobody is sentenced to SuperMax. Everybody here has been sent because they were too hard to manage in other prisons or because of their link to terrorism. Thirty of the prison’s 48 inmates are here for terrorist-related offences.

We head first to Unit Nine, a horseshoe-shaped row of cells with an enclosed observation area in the middle where the prison officers huddle like soldiers in a pillbox. This is effectively a remand centre for NSW’s most dangerous men. We have been here just a few minutes and already the shouting from the banks of locked cells has begun. “Why don’t you tell them about the oppression inside SuperMax!”

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.

One of the conditions of our visit is that we do not name inmates, but they are recognisable enough. Australia’s most notorious serial killer is here. The fearsome muscles and piercing black eyes that terrified his seven known victims in their last moments are gone. More than 20 years into his sentence, he’s an old man now. He is sitting at a concrete desk writing letters, something he does incessantly. He mops the floors for extra milk rations. In any other jail he’d be just another sad old crim seeing out the years, but here in the SuperMax he looks oddly out of place. It says much about the transformation of SuperMax from high-risk prison to holding pen for Muslim ­radicals that not even the serial killers fit in. Piazza says this prisoner would normally be up on Deck Eight, but they brought him down here because he’s been doing it tough. Some break.

In the cell next to him is a rangy Lebanese boy with a mohawk haircut and a chest full of tatts. I recognise him, too. In April last year he was moved from Kempsey Prison to the SuperMax after he bashed his cellmate, doused him in ­boiling water and carved “E4E” (eye for an eye) into his forehead. His victim was a former ­Australian army reservist and it’s believed this was an ISIS-inspired attack. Certainly it was enough to get him transferred to SuperMax, where he has since been charged with plotting a terror attack on Bankstown Police ­Station. He also allegedly threatened to cut off the head of Peter Severin, the NSW Corrective ­Services Commissioner. He sweeps the floor and glowers at us malevolently.

A few cells down is a young man at the centre of Australia’s biggest terrorism plot. He was arrested in September 2014 over an alleged conspiracy to abduct and behead a random member of the ­public. “Why don’t you report the truth and that’s the oppression of your so-called government,” he yells through the glass. There is a lot of this. In the minds of most inmates there is no difference between a targeted military campaign and cutting a bloke’s head off in Sydney’s Martin Place. If anything, they think the former is worse.

Visits like this are rare in SuperMax and already the prisoners are getting toey. Young men with bushy Salafist beards press their faces against the heavy safety glass in their cell doors. Before long the shouting starts. “Power to Islam!” “The truth shall set you free!” and “Allahu Akbar!” Piazza can feel the ­tension rising; you’d have to be made of granite not to. He doesn’t want the inmates too riled up – it creates problems for staff later in the day. We move on….

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