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Are French Prisons Radicalizing Muslim Prisoners?

The demographics inside French prisons have become a hot-button issue in the aftermath of eleven terrorist attacks that have occurred in France since January 2015. At least six individuals involved in those attacks are believed to have been inducted into radical Islam while they were incarcerated in France or Belgium.

According to some estimates, as many as 50% of France’s prison population is Muslim – an outrageous figure if true, considering that Muslims reportedly represent only about 12% of the nation’s overall population. Long before the ISIS-inspired January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed a dozen people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, politicians on the right had been using those statistics to inflame negative attitudes toward Muslim immigrants from North Africa and other Islamic countries.

But Muslim leaders and human rights activists have cited similar data, arguing that even if the number of Muslims incarcerated in French prisons is inflated, the system is weighted against Muslims and reflects deep social and ethnic divides in France. The country’s social policies, they contend, have isolated Muslims in dilapidated neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and poor schools, giving Muslim immigrants and their French-born children little hope for upward mobility.

“The question of discrimination and justice is one of the key political questions of our society, and still, it is not given much importance,” said Sebastian Roche of the French National Center for Scientific Research. “We can’t blame a state if its companies discriminate; however, we can blame the state if its justice system and its police discriminate.”

Roche’s comments were made in a 2008 Washington Post article on Muslims in French prisons, nearly seven years before the Charlie Hebdo massacre – which indicates there has been longstanding, festering resentment that could be used to recruit would-be terrorists in France’s prison system.

That was the apparent concern of officials at the Fresnes penitentiary – a prison on the outskirts of Paris – where about 20 prisoners alleged to be radical Islamists were isolated in a separate unit in order to “prevent recruitment among prisoners,” said a source at the facility. A dozen of the prisoners protested in November 2014 and one assaulted a guard.

Some guards at Fresnes, including Ahmed El Hoummass, were opposed to the new isolation strategy, which was subsequently expanded to other French prisons as part of a “deradicalization” program involving several hundred Muslim prisoners.

“Their isolation is, in fact, a form of ‘career development,’” El Hoummass told the French newspaper Le Figaro. “They will teach each other how to better practice radicalization.”

The practice of isolating Muslim prisoners at Fresnes came around five months after Mehdi Nemmouche allegedly opened fire on a crowd, killing four, at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014. Investigators said Nemmouche was recruited into radical Islam while serving a prison term.

French deputy Guillaume Larrive, who worked on the 2015 Prison Service budget, has doubled down on the isolation strategy, calling for “anti-radicalization shock therapy units for prisoners returning from jihad.”

But isolation, argued French sociologist Olivier Bobineau, is not a long-term solution to the problem of radicalization within French prisons.

“The risk is that the prisoners become inward-looking and exclusive,” he said. “The radicals are victims of three types of frustration: political and religious, economic, and the lack of social recognition. For those who radicalize, religion brings hope, equality, and self-esteem. Isolation is only a short- or medium-term measure. If you really want to tackle radicalization, you have to provide solutions to those three frustrations.”

Bobineau is not alone in his observations.

“If you put all these people together who are only thinking about radical Islam, who are only talking about it, it’s hard to break that mentality,” Mourad Benchellali told Mother Jones magazine in an August 1, 2016 article. And Benchellali would know – he spent four years incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay and in French prisons. He currently works as an anti-radicalization lecturer, speaking to prisoners within France’s deradicalization units.

Further, he cited the risk of actually pushing some prisoners deeper into the culture of radicalization through punitive environments.

The driving force behind radicalization, as seen by Benchellali and other critics of deradicalization isolation units in French prisons, is that of cultural, social and economic disenfranchisement. As Benchellali told Mother Jones, Muslims may turn to radical Islam because they “feel like France doesn’t want them.”

Indeed, France’s Muslim community, where unemployment is high, has been the subject of much derision and pressure in recent years. Following the November 2015 attack on Paris’ Bataclan theater, which involved three suicide bombers and mass shootings that left 130 people dead and 368 injured, French authorities placed hundreds of Muslims under house arrest, without court orders, and police raided thousands of Muslim homes, businesses and mosques.

Many members of France’s Muslim population are North African immigrants, and anti-immigrant sentiment within the country has surged in tandem with anti-Islamic sentiment through the course of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

 Further, speaking to the role of harsh social conditions in fostering violent extremism, some critics place part of the blame on France’s prison system itself.

“Radicalization doesn’t happen in well-managed, small, medium-security prisons.... It does happen in large, overcrowded, mismanaged, maximum-security prisons where rehabilitation, treatment, and work have disappeared,” former Arizona Department of Corrections director of education and programming Mark Hamm told Mother Jones. Hamm currently studies prison radicalization at Indiana State University.

France’s prisons, with their potential to serve as breeding grounds for radical Islam, certainly seem to fit that bill – with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy once referring to the nation’s prison system as “the disgrace of the republic.” However, if prisoners are treated with the basic dignity that all people deserve and their humanity is respected, they are less likely to turn to extremism ... a lesson that prison officials should embrace.

Sources:,, Washington Post,, 

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