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Prisons Are Breeding Ground for Terrorists?

“Prisons are often described as ‘hotbeds’ of terrorism,” but they can also become important “net contributors in the struggle against terrorism” according to a July 2010 joint study by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START).

The 64-page report was the result of the first study “to examine policies on prison radicalization and deradicalisation in 15 countries across the globe.” Researchers “aimed to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the role prisons can play in radicalizing people and reforming them,” according to the report.

“Prisons are ‘places of vulnerability,’ which produce ‘identity seekers,’ ‘protection seekers,’ and ‘rebels’ in greater number than other environments,” the study found. “They provide near-perfect conditions in which radical, religiously framed ideologies can flourish.” Noting that the extent of this problem is difficult to discern, the researchers wrote that “the potential for prison radicalization is significant” and must be addressed.

Among the problems noted by the researchers was a “security first” approach to prison management. “Many prison services seem to believe that the imperatives of security and reform are incompatible,” the report said. “In reality, though, reform does not need to come at the expense of security. Prison services should be more ambitious in promoting positive influences inside prison, and develop more innovative approaches in facilitating prisoners’ transition back into mainstream society.”

Moreover, “over-crowding and under-staffing amplify the conditions that lend themselves to radicalization.” As such, “the first and most important recommendation is to improve general conditions, avoid over-crowding, train staff, and provide meaningful programming that allows prisoners to develop stable inmate identities,” the report stated. “Prison imams [Islamic religious leaders] are important in denying religious space to extremists, but they are not a panacea.”

The report found that “one size does not fit all,” and successful programs cannot simply be “copied and pasted.” Rather, for programs to be effective, “their scope, structure and instruments must reflect local contexts and conditions.”

“In bringing together the experiences of 15 countries, the report has attempted to show the diversity of policy and practice across the world,” the researchers stated. Taken together, the lessons learned “demonstrate the enormous possibilities for prisons to make a positive and significant contribution to countering terrorism.”

The potential religious radicalization of prisoners has struck a chord in the U.S., too – particularly in regard to Islamic radicalization. Republican U.S. Rep. Peter King held a hearing on that topic in June 2011. King cited at least five examples since 2002 of ex-prisoners who adopted radical Islamic beliefs and became involved with terrorist groups – including Kevin James, a former California prisoner who converted to Islam and plotted to attack military facilities and synagogues. That these plots have been foiled by FBI informants beg the question of whether actual militants are being bred or instead patsies for the “war on terror” are being created. No examples are provided where American prisoners converted to Islam and actually carried out any acts of resistance.

“We have seen cases in which inmates have been radicalized at the hands of already locked-up terrorists or by extremist imam chaplains,” King stated. “We will focus on a number of the serious cases in which radicalized current and former inmates have planned and launched attacks or attempted to join overseas Islamic terrorist organizations.”

In 2003, the FBI created a program to collect intelligence information about and disrupt terrorist recruiting in prisons and the radicalization of prisoners. “Prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists who exploit both a prisoner’s conversion to Islam while still in prison, as well as their socioeconomic status and placement in the community upon their release,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said during a Senate Committee hearing in 2005.

Rep. King and Rep. Frank Wolf took specific issue with the writings and messages of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and recently asked Bureau of Prisons (BOP) acting director Thomas Kane to ban all Nation of Islam material from federal prisons.

“We ask you to immediately remove all written, audio and video materials produced by the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan from all BOP facilities,” Reps. King and Wolf wrote in a letter to Kane. “We also request that you launch an immediate and comprehensive audit of all other Islamic texts and sermons made available to inmates in BOP facilities, including a review of your procedures for vetting such materials.”

“I am committed to conducting thorough oversight of BOP to ensure that our prisons are not breeding grounds for terrorism,” Rep. Wolf stated.

Yet given the very few examples of prisoners who have turned to guerrilla warfare after being “radicalized” by Islam while incarcerated, and the fact that white prisoners who are “radicalized” by racist white supremacist beliefs are largely ignored, it appears that the current witch-hunt relative to Islam in prison is little more than political posturing.

Sources: “Prisons and Terrorism Radicalisation and De-radicalisation in 15 Countries,” ICSR/START (July 2010), available at;;;

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