At Risk: Causes and Solutions for Radicalization in Prisons

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By ICRD Intern Ian Farkas

As national attention remains fixated on the Islamic State and its internet-based recruitment tactics, insufficient attention has been paid to the influence of prisons on radicalization. In 2015 alone, a spree of terroristic shootings in Copenhagen and an attack on a kosher deli in Paris were committed by men who had been radicalized by extremist recruiters in prison. Even the now infamous ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was imprisoned in the American-run Camp Bucca in Iraq, where he used the detention facility as a recruitment center for the malleable minds around him. As prison radicalization becomes more prevalent and our awareness of the problem more acute, it is imperative to develop programs that aim to prevent or reverse extremism in inmates to offset this threat.

Prisons are ideal breeding grounds for recruiters to radicalize their fellow inmates, due largely to the prisoners’ hunger for identity and social support. Allying oneself with an extremist cause provides protection and purpose while incarcerated, and gives prisoners direction after their release. Due to the problems of overcrowding and insufficient guards that plague many prisons, preventing incarcerated radicals from reaching potential followers is a problem without a simple solution. Therefore, any successful anti-radicalization program must account for the needs of prisoners, which may otherwise be satisfied by opportunistic recruiters.

In an attempt to find what traits make for an effective de-radicalization strategy, a 2010 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) compared the approaches of programs from different countries to discern what works and what doesn’t. The study found that comparisons between programs are difficult, since successful programs operate within the context of their environment (for example, what could work well in an affluent Western European country could be a failure in an impoverished South Asian setting). Since these programs don’t have a one size fits all model, governments must be careful to identify basic principles and tailor them to fit their specific needs.

For example, the Danish Back on Track program contains many broadly-applicable features which were successful in a Denmark-specific context, but can also be useful when implemented abroad. Inmates are offered opportunities to develop their social, vocational, and educational skills so they may pursue a secure existence after prison, essentially filling the niche that extremism would otherwise occupy. Back on Track also employs moderate religious leaders to act as credible liaisons on behalf of the state, establishing intimate ties with prisoners while providing the support and guidance which would otherwise be supplied by extremist recruiters.

Unlike Denmark’s Back on Track, Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group emphasizes “family reconciliation” in order to anchor inmates with commitments and relationships outside of prison while healing any schisms in familial relationships that could have driven someone to radicalize in the first place. The Singaporean organization also highlights the importance of aftercare for vulnerable prisoners, using families or social workers to vouch for ex-convicts’ good behavior and personal growth after release.

To prevent at-risk former prisoners from pursuing radical opportunities or ending up back in prison, programs that offer services and support to ex-cons are invaluable. This is precisely the mission of the Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries, which is featured in ICRD’s documentary Back From The Brink: Countering Violent Extremism. Designed to help former inmates and at-risk populations who would otherwise be unemployable or isolated, Homeboy Industries provides legal, vocational, and mental health support to those who need it the most. Offering work and support to these vulnerable groups is the best way to ensure that former radicals do not return to extremist avenues, in this case gang-related activities.

None of these solutions will be applicable in every country, and finding a successful strategy for each environment will be challenging. However, continuing to neglect prisons will be a costly oversight. If we choose to ignore the threat of radicalization in prisons, we will be denying vulnerable inmates a chance for redemption and leaving them susceptible to the influence of extremists. Unfortunately, even while headlines are dominated by discussions of radicalization, scant attention is paid to prison reform. We have to go beyond condemning extremism and take steps to treat vulnerable people with respect and care. Only by putting our values into action can we hope to turn disaffected people away from violent ideologies.

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