In the second blog in our anniversary series, Dr Shane Bryans, a former UK prison governor and criminal justice expert, who has worked on prison-based de-radicalisation programmes in a number of countries, examines how prison administrations can manage violent extremist offenders.
Countries on every continent are facing the challenge of managing Violent Extremist Offenders (VEOs) within their prison systems. Preventing them escaping has to remain of paramount concern, given the offences committed by these offenders. A more sophisticated understanding of the role prisons can play, however, reveals that they can have an important function in preventing further radicalisation and in de-radicalising VEOs.
VEOs are not a homogenous group and countries are having to manage VEOs who are motivated by a variety of causes. For some VEOs there is a religious imperative, others are driven by nationalism (for example, a desire to establish an independent State), or by a determination to overthrow the incumbent Government. A smaller number see violent extremism as a means to further a specific cause, such as animal rights or preventing abortions. Violent extremism can also be directed by groups or individuals towards people from a specific racial, ethnic, or religious group, or people with a particular sexual orientation. Prisons can be places where the views of VEOs are challenged, no matter how different their cause or motivation. Prisons can act as a focal point for change.
“Prisons can be places where the views of VEOs are challenged, no matter how different their cause or motivation.”
Managing VEOs in prison brings additional challenges around each of the core functions of any prison system: maintaining security and order; ensuring decent conditions and fair treatment; and providing opportunities for rehabilitation. In an insecure world, where ideologies have been distorted to justify extremist violence, there is an even greater need for authorities to demonstrate that VEOs have been deprived of their liberty in a manner that is consistent with international standards. Badly run prisons create the physical and ideological space in which extremist recruiters can operate freely and, at the same time, reinforce the VEOs’ view that they have been treated unfairly by the State.
One of the key questions for any prison system is whether VEOs should be concentrated in separate units or dispersed among the general high security prison population. Allowing VEOs to mix freely can enable them to seek out and successfully recruit fellow prisoners. On the other hand, segregating VEOs in separate blocks enables them to maintain an organisational hierarchy and hone their operational skills. International experience suggests that there are no hard and fast rules about whether VEOs should be concentrated or separated. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Most countries practise a policy of dispersal of most low level VEOs among a small number of high security prisons and concentration of high level VEOs in special units. Other than in very few cases, there is no justification for the complete isolation or segregation of individual VEOs from the rest of the prison population or from other VEOs.
Of particular concern to prison administrations is that sophisticated extremists may devise ways to turn prisons into training camps that are breeding grounds for violent extremism. In these ‘incubators of terrorism’, as some people refer to prisons, susceptible offenders can be radicalised into violent extremism, with some of them committing terrorist acts following their release. The evidence for such a view is somewhat limited but prison systems must meet the challenge by putting in place mechanisms for detecting and preventing radicalisation within prisons. Prison authorities require adequate tools to prevent VEOs from radicalising their fellow prisoners. Situational and contextual factors and enablers need to be carefully monitored and tracked by prison officials.
It has been argued that certain prison environments can facilitate radicalisation, in particular where there is severe overcrowding and underfunded rehabilitation activities. Unsafe and disorderly prisons aggravate the conditions that make prisoners vulnerable to radicalisation. Extremists will find it easier to fill the (spiritual and material) vacuum created by prisons that fail to provide prisoners with a set of meaningful activities towards which their energies can be directed. These crowded and under-resourced prisons can also create a ‘safety dilemma’ in which prisoners feel compelled to turn to extremists for protection. Prison administrators should take action to prevent VEOs from ‘grooming’ other prisoners and focus on identifying ‘at risk’ prisoners on the basis of information gathered from staff and from engagement with individual offenders.
“Extremists will find it easier to fill the (spiritual and material) vacuum created by prisons that fail to provide prisoners with a set of meaningful activities.”
Prisons can also, however, have a positive impact on VEOs. Following a period of imprisonment most VEOs are released back into society, and without their de-radicalisation and dis-engagement, they can pose a continuing security threat. De-radicalisation and rehabilitation of VEOs in prison is a relatively new frontier in the fight against ideological and religious extremism and its violent manifestations.
The logic behind de-radicalisation is that if an individual can adopt radical beliefs and attitudes that lead to violent extremism, then the individual can also abandon those beliefs and attitudes. De-radicalisation programmes therefore focus on the social and psychological process whereby an individual’s commitment to, and involvement in, violent extremism is reduced to the extent that they are no longer at risk of involvement and engagement in violent activity.
Developing cognitive programmes that assist VEOs in defining the issues that pushed them towards violent extremist behaviour in the first place, and subsequently in formulating objectives and identifying and implementing activity to tackle the root causes of their violent extremism, can be a challenging task. Although de-radicalisation programmes must be tailored to local conditions, cultures, and legal traditions, Global Counter Terrorism Forum members have identified a series of non-binding good practices that can serve as the foundation for States’ policies and programmes. These are set out in the Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders.
Programmes which are currently being run to de-radicalise VEOs are: small in number; operate in just a handful of jurisdictions; and are inevitably embedded in the cultures and societies in which they are developed and delivered. There is limited information known about the structure, rationale or approaches underlining the de-radicalisation programmes that do exist. What research there is suggests that de-radicalisation programmes have the best chance of succeeding when they are nestled in a safe, secure and well managed custodial setting in which the human rights of prisoners are respected. Interventions tend to focus on educational programmes that counter nationalist ideologies and narratives that explain and justify state actions (such as the occupation of a specific region or the searching of Mosques) through more inclusive rhetoric which is fact- rather than rumour based. Interventions also tend to focus on religious (re)education which makes clear that killing is wrong and is not a correct interpretation of the Holy Koran or Bible; and the use of religious scholars to explain that there is no religious duty to kill and that there is no religious necessity for a jihad.
“…De-radicalisation programmes have the best chance of succeeding when they are nestled in a safe, secure and well managed custodial setting in which the human rights of prisoners are respected.”
Rehabilitation of VEOs should also involve a variety of activities, in addition to psychological-social-religious programme interventions. These additional rehabilitation elements can include: education; vocational training; creative therapies; social, cultural, and family activity; and recreation. Research indicates that broader contextual circumstances (such as healthy relationships, feeling safe, opportunities to walk away from groups or causes) can be as important as specific targeted interventions.
The most secure, safest and best ordered prisons are those in which staff acknowledge the humanity of those in their care and seek to rehabilitate them, whatever their offence and views that they may hold. These are the prisons which are likely to contribute the most to the future safety of our communities. Observing these ideals in the management of VEOs is one of the greatest challenges facing those who work in any prison system.
Photo copyright: Maximum security prison, Bet HaShitta, Hazafon, Israel. (Flickr Creative Commons)
About Shane Bryans
Dr Shane Bryans is a former prison governor and currently Director of Panopticon Consulting, Programme Manager at the International Centre for Prison Studies, and visiting Professor at Staffordshire University Law School. He has visited more than 18 countries to provide advice and support on their criminal justice systems, on behalf of Governments, the UN and EU. Shane has worked on prison based de-radicalisation in a number of jurisdictions and regularly contributes to the work of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum. Last year he worked with the International Centre for Counter Terrorism to develop a modular training course on ‘Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders’. The comments in this blog are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent those of any organisation for which he works.
About this blog series
To mark our 25th Anniversary and prepare for the Crime Congress in Qatar in April 2015, PRI has launched a series of monthly expert guest blogs, addressing interesting current trends and pressing criminal justice challenges in criminal justice and penal reform.
Blogs will be available here on our website and as podcasts on the 25th of each month from May 2014 to April 2015. Read more about the blog series.