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6 strategies for preventing radicalization in US jails and prisons

Having a comprehensive, written policy is very important in managing inmates who wish to radicalize others towards terrorist behavior

Good policy prohibits inmates from possessing literature that proposes violence and hatred, which often are seen as important to the character of a terrorist inmate.

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By Eugene Atherton

Since 9/11, Orlando, and other attacks in the U.S. and abroad, we have experienced heightened concern over terrorist violence. This article offers recommended strategies for the mitigation of the radicalization of inmates in American jails and prisons. Before discussing mitigation strategies for radicalization, the academic community strongly suggests the discussion is assisted by adopting a common, standard language to ensure an equal understanding among all readers. I offer the following definitions for that purpose:

  • Radicalization: A process by which inmates adopt extreme views, including beliefs that violent measures need to be taken for political and/or religious purposes.
  • Terrorism: Symbolic, politically motivated acts of violence with specific targets and/or generally targeting civilians or non-combatants.
  • Terrorist inmate: An inmate who is radicalized and serving a sentence for being convicted for acting as a terrorist in violation of criminal law.
  • Deradicalization: A process whereby individuals (or groups) cease their belief in organized violence and/or terrorism.
  • Disengagement: A process whereby individuals (or groups) cease their active involvement in terrorist organizations.

The following are six strategies to mitigate against the radicalization of inmates.

1. Strong corrections management

Research shows that bad things happen in ineffectively managed prisons. The Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or JIS, case in a U.S. prison is often used as an example of a prison environment where a terrorist cell was allowed to develop and find its way into the surrounding communities. Fortunately, it was detected and neutralized by law enforcement before an attack was successful.

At the time of the incident, I visited the facility for security assessment training. There is no question it was one of the most violent and tense correctional environments I experienced in my career. It was the perfect storm to breed radicalism towards terrorist acts. While these conditions are a major concern among European nations, they must also be a concern in U.S. jails and prisons.

Again, effectively managed prisons are the best strategy to mitigate inmate tendency to radicalize.

2. Comprehensive policy

This section assumes compliance with policy is the standard practice in a corrections facility. Disciplinary policy is very important in managing inmates who wish to radicalize others towards terrorist behavior. It is further enhanced by the myriad of advantages in being an American Correctional Association standards compliant system. Florida Department of Corrections, as an example, has a policy that prohibits inmates from proselytizing.

Most corrections agencies have policies that manage inmates’ ability to form in groups and to use prison resources for activities associated with membership in a group. In very good religious service programs in corrections, policy includes selection criteria for staff and standard curriculum for training and certification. Good policy prohibits inmates from possessing literature that proposes violence and hatred, which often are seen as important to the character of a terrorist inmate. Ineffective prison management typically does not have or enforce such policies.

3. Programs with cognitive restructuring

Prison environments that are program-rich provide hope for inmates. This hope makes the decision to radicalize towards violence less attractive. At minimum, a multitude of programs act against the old adage that the idle hands are the devil’s workshop. However, the greatest potential for all classification of inmates lies in the program known as cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring is based upon the notion that if someone changes the way they think, it will change the way they behave. Two popular programs implemented in the U.S. are 7 Habits on the Inside and Thinking for a Change. Having been an instructor for the 7 Habits on the Inside program, I have witnessed changes in inmate participant behavior and attitude that have been profound and extremely effective in every aspect of their lives.

For an inmate involved in such programs, I expect there is very little chance of being radicalized towards terrorist conduct.

4. Effective religious services

In Mark Hamm’s survey of United State Prison systems, he focuses on the role of the religious service provider as central to knowing and influencing an inmate’s tendency towards radicalization. I recognize the value of an effective coordinator of the religious services in the correctional populations. Some are priceless and have very positive influence on those inmates wishing to pursue a spiritual path. I have also experienced those that are of little value or a potential negative influence, as was the chaplain in the JIS case.

Hamm’s survey findings suggest we need more religious service providers for all faiths in correctional systems. I don’t disagree. However, the emphasis ignores the potential good that could be done by helping all other staff with regular inmate contact to exhibit similar interpersonal skills.

5. Prisoner intelligence systems and surveillance

Prisoner intelligence systems must provide accurate, current, quality information that identifies inmates who have high potential to radicalize towards violent behavior.

During the JIS incident, I personally witnessed a facility overwhelmed with violent gang activity. The gang activity was to the extent that staff seemed to have little time or resources to tend to less obvious social developments. This included the radicalization that was occurring in the prison chapel with the support of the chaplain who was providing literature that embraced violence as imperative in the terrorist struggle.

The days are gone in which staff could walk the yard and speak to each inmate by name and be familiar with who they are. The overall numbers of inmates has grown dramatically, and they are frequently transferred among facilities.

Because of this, all prisons need to have intelligence systems. The historical information may not be very telling. However, information produced by staff observing on the front lines and interacting with inmates may be extremely valuable toward recognizing potential problems before they arise and skillfully intervening before harm is done. Such information reported and analyzed through carefully designed software systems can give staff the advantage as inmates contemplate radicalization or consider deradicalization and disengagement from their group.

Very often the information is available, but the challenge that corrections agencies have is how to get it packaged, maintain its quality and integrity and swiftly move it to those who should know.

The Colorado Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Corrections are outstanding examples of sophisticated incident reporting systems. These systems begin with the officer managing inmates on the shift where a critical incident occurs. The circumstances are documented and submitted to a digital report which is submitted to a higher level of processing. There, it gets considered as impacting multiple areas of concern.

After analysis, the information is further elevated where all is prioritized and high level supervision can formulate action plans. Some portions of the Florida system perform data analysis automatically. In both systems leadership can identify an issue by a general label and then drill down through layers of data that provide information that is extremely important. Such analysis can help prevent escapes, inmate violence and can provide information that resolves problems before radicalization appears.

In the last decade, camera systems have become more affordable and an integral part of the prison and jail operation. More advanced technology offers software that includes facial identification of inmates under view of the camera. The cameras have become the eyes and ears of staff confined to duty stations. Cameras can often detect movement and inmate behavior that indicates a pattern of inmate social behavior that would identify potential for radicalization.

6. Staff and inmate training

Training for staff and inmates in order to prevent and dissolve radicalization toward terrorist inmate behavior can take many forms. It can emphasize effective relationships between inmates and staff as would be an outcome of 7 Habits on the Inside for graduates of the course. The results can build trust and confidence in relationships which serves as pathways to solving issues surrounding radicalization.

Training can emphasize behavior observation and intervention by staff. Under a great deal of public concern over terrorist gangs on the streets and in prisons, European nations have taken the initiative in preparing front line staff to be effective in responding to radicalization. Both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have produced training programs for frontline staff on the streets and in prisons. This training prepares staff to recognize the behavior as a sign of radicalization and to effectively intervene to resolve the problem.

In every correctional system there are hot button issues that negatively impact relationships among staff and inmates. Some examples are attitudes concerning gender with respect to staff and inmates. Another is when, for example, a white, male, Christian officer supervises an inmate who worships Islam. He/she may believe that all worshipers of Islam hate and would do violence to non-believers. Training could replace dangerous mythology with accurate, factual information. Another example could be when that same officer supervises an inmate who worships as a Native American. When mated with a policy emphasis on religious tolerance, the effect can dramatically improve relationships between inmate and staff. It is the relationship between front line staff and inmates that counts the most, and effective training can give them the tools to be successful.

There are three things to remember as a leader in your corrections organization.

First, there is no one magic formula or strategy for success. Each corrections agency must have a plan to successfully manage radicalization of inmates. The plan toward success must implement numerous strategies.

Second, leadership in corrections is most often challenged with achieving a balance between competing influences. On the one hand, it is everyone’s job to achieve safety and control toward a humane environment. Sometimes that pursuit requires the imposition of rules and sanctions. There are times where many are unhappy with the rules. On the other hand, it is important to allow inmates to participate in activities that promote personal growth towards an effective, non-criminal life experience. There is clear evidence that many religious conversions support character development among inmates that leads to productive, non-criminal behavior in the prison populations.

It is balance that achieves success. Implementation of multiple strategies and achieving a balance on critical issues is the hallmark of an effectively managed prison environment. Such an accomplishment is the most important force in managing inmate radicalization in prison.