Last week, PRI’s Executive Director Alison Hannah gave a presentation at an international conference in Turin organised by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) on bridging the gaps between prison and community-based rehabilitation and reintegration programmes for violent extremist offenders. The three-day conference brought together international and country experts to highlight the results of their work – and that of others – and raise awareness of current practice and key gaps in the rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremists into the community. Participants came from all regions of the world to share their experiences and lessons learnt.
The agenda focused on three aspects: bridging the gap between rehabilitation and reintegration services inside and outside detention; community-based programmes of rehabilitation and reintegration for foreign terrorist fighters and violent extremists; and identifying common issues and key lessons learnt. UNICRI began the conference with a summary of its own experience, including in Jordan, Kenya and Morocco. The importance of individual risk and needs assessments was stressed, since all offenders present different challenges and characteristics. While there are many challenges in efforts to disengage or deradicalise such prisoners, all agreed that a multi-disciplinary approach is essential to encourage and support a change in behaviour, at least. It was recognised that it can be more difficult to change someone’s firm-held beliefs than to persuade them to disengage from violence. Offenders were often described as having an ‘us and them’ mentality, in which there is initially little willingness to compromise beliefs or see things from another person’s perspective.
All agreed that a multi-disciplinary approach is essential to encourage and support a change in behaviour.
Common strands emerging from the discussions identified the need for education, mentoring, retaining positive family relationships and psycho-social support. The needs of the violent extremist offenders are great but also diverse. A number of speakers mentioned that in their own experience, the role of religious faith was not necessarily an important driver towards extremism. However, in other cases, religion was one of the main motivators. Consequently the role of religious teaching and guidance was always an important factor in rehabilitation.
Alison Hannah, PRI’s Executive Director, referred to the need for an individualised approach in her presentation on the role of religious leaders and family members in the rehabilitation process. There are a number of good practice examples, such as in Kazakhstan, with a prison-based programme of religious teaching; a ‘mothers school’ in Tajikistan; the Dutch Family Support Unit; and special programmes for former child fighters.
Participants also highlighted the need for continuity of interventions, to provide support after release for ex-prisoners and their families – some of whom may reject and stigmatise the offender, thereby isolating them from their communities even more. Family counselling and support is an important aspect of the post-release reintegration process, to strengthen ties with the family and community and develop a counter-narrative in place of that which led to radicalisation in the first instance.