Radicalisation in Prisons

Article written by
Emma Thorpe
August 7, 2022

Radicalisation in prisons is a global issue and is not contained to any one country and prisons can act as a vector for someone becoming radicalised. Radicalisation is when someone starts supporting or believing in views that are extreme, in some instances the radicalisation leads to participating in terrorist groups or acts of terror. Extremism can encompass a range of extreme views and beliefs but is someone who is active and vocal in their opposition of democracy, fundamental values, individual liberties, law of the land, and tolerance and respect for others 'beliefs and faiths. It is worth noting that not all radicalised and extremist individuals or groups will commit acts of terrorism or extremist motivated acts of violence. In facilities that are designed to rehabilitate people, it might be hard to understand the fact that many people get radicalised within those same walls by other extremist prisoners but it makes sense when you think of the kind of environment that many prisons create.

France, like many other European countries, has seen an increase in terrorist attacks over recent years, with most being linked to radical Islam. In prisons with close proximity to French urban areas, the rate of Islamic prisoners is around 50-70%, which in relation to Islamic extremists, can be a breeding ground for prisoners to become radicalised. Many of the French Islamist homegrown terrorists who participated in violent attacks in previous years, were radicalised in prison while more often than not, serving prison sentences for crimes unrelated to terrorism. In a bid to tackle the growth of extremists and radicalisation, in2016 the French government launched a rehabilitation program for people with extreme and radical views, however this was scrapped less than a year after its launch due to a number of failings. Launching rehabilitation programs is an important step when trying to alter the mindset of prisoners, one that has been proven to work on a range of issues, and scrapping a program while it is still in its infancy is frankly puzzling and the issue of radicalisation in prisons in France remains to be a significant problem.

UK prisons face their fair share of issues with radicalisation and a good example of this evolving into an act of terror is the attack that took place in HMP White moor, Cambridgeshire, in 2020. Two extreme Islamist prisoners brutally attacked a prison guard, they wore fake suicide vests and attacked him with a prison made blade, two other guards were injured when they intervened. One of the prisoners who perpetrated the attack was radicalised in prison, the place he was sent to for rehabilitation. The UK government has a different approach to radicalisation in their prisons and in April 2022, announced a new drive to further combat the spread of any dangerous ideologies in prison. A few of the new measures include increased funding for close supervision centres, targeting the most influential radicalisers for separation units and improving specialist staff training to spot the signs of terrorist activity. It’s good that the UK government are taking the issue more seriously and not just discarding new approaches without giving them time to make positive changes.

Sri Lanka take a very different approach to de-radicalisation than many Western countries. In their rehabilitation centres, where radicalised and extremist prisoners are separated from the rest of the prisoners, they offer a range of courses designed to help change the mindset and general attuites of the prisoners. These courses range from vocational and educational, sports and yoga to counselling and art. A particular program of theirs, specifically targeting members of the Tamil Tigers was studied in a systematic review and showed that program participants showed a steady decline in their support for violent extremism and was deemed largely successful. There are always lessons to be learnt from other countries and it is important that governments don’t give up the fight to stop prison radicalisation but instead use and build on the research and literature available to make significant changes.

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