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Rethinking “Prison Radicalisation” - Lessons from the U.S. Federal Correctional System

16 Nov 2018
Short Read by Bennett Clifford

During the past five years, a substantial uptick in convictions for extremism-related offenses, coupled with the return of jihadists from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, drastically increased populations of extremist offenders within the prison systems of most European Union member states. Concurrently, several individuals who adopted violent extremist ideologies during their incarceration for offenses unrelated to terrorism perpetrated lethal terrorist attacks after their release, most infamously in France in November 2015, Belgium in March 2016, and in Germany in December 2016. Partially as a result of those attacks, several EU member states’ prison authorities began unrolling programmatic options for countering extremism in correctional systems, with dual hopes of preventing non-extremist offenders from radicalizing in prison and curtailing the recidivism rates of known extremists.

Across the Atlantic, American perspectives on extremism in correctional systems are markedly different. To date, the United States arguably faces a less acute threat. To start, the proportion of extremist to non-extremist offenders is substantially smaller in U.S. prisons (where in the federal correctional system alone, there are over 180,000 inmates). Prison sentences—especially for terrorism-related activities—are substantially longer, and the security restrictions placed on known extremist recruiters in prisons are severe. To date, there have been fewer terrorist attacks in the United States involving formerly-incarcerated jihadists.

What the U.S. federal correctional system lacks, however, are targeted disengagement and deradicalisation programs for extremist inmates. For decades, the federal prison system housed a range of extremist inmates with a variety of ideological leanings, charges of conviction, sentences, risk classifications, and facilities of incarceration. In the post-9/11 environment, government discussions about “prison radicalisation”, exemplified by a series of Congressional hearings on the topic, focus heavily on the threat that Islamist extremists housed in federal prisons will build networks, plan attacks from prison, and attempt to convince other inmates of their cause.

A handful of isolated incidents notwithstanding, this specific risk has so far failed to materialize on a large scale. This version of the discussion of extremism in prison initially heralded great advancements in how the U.S. government views the counter-terrorism role of its federal prison authority, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Today, as a result of these efforts, the BOP is relatively well-integrated into the counter-terrorism intelligence-sharing process. BOP maintains a standalone counter-terrorism unit and a liaison to the Joint Terrorism Taskforce, allowing it to effectively communicate with law enforcement and intelligence agencies at the federal, state, and local levels.

However, the current interpretation of the “prison radicalisation” problem in the U.S. created blind spots in counter-terrorism authorities’ ability to detect emerging threats from incarcerated inmates and worse, stymied policy responses to addressing extremism in U.S. prisons and jails. First and foremost, there have been only a few independent data-driven accountings of the “prison radicalisation” problem in federal correctional facilities. External, observational accounts, in combination with BOP statements and Congressional hearings, highlighted several incidents when incarcerated inmates without previous extremist leanings radicalized in prison. Two of the landmark examples of radicalisation in U.S. prisons—the formation of the California-based jihadi prison cell “Jamiyyat ul-Islam is-Saheeh” (JIS) and a recent case in Virginia involving a violent offender turned Islamic State supporter named Casey Spain—both occurred in state prison systems, not federal ones. Existing gaps in data about the scope of nature of prison radicalisation in the U.S. include minimal analysis of prison systems at the state and local levels, as well as a lack of understanding of radicalisation into non-Islamist groups and entities that employ elements of extremist ideologies (including some prison gangs).  Ongoing data collection, as well as collaboration with other government agencies and the research community will be vital in assessments; without conclusive and comprehensive numbers, it is impossible to declare whether “prison radicalisation” is a notable phenomenon in the United States.

In addition, the framing of “prison radicalisation” does not encapsulate the diverse landscape of the U.S. federal correctional system, or the officials responsible for implementing policy. The Bureau of Prisons is not a monolith. It manages over 120 disparate facilities, varying geographically, by security classification, and by facility type, and includes penitentiaries, pre-trial and transfer centers, medical centers, and privately-managed facilities. Current conceptualizations of “prison radicalisation” presume that policy responses and programmatic interventions should be modeled on prison environments, and that the circumstances that cause radicalisation in custody only occur from an inmate’s initial incarceration in a BOP prison facility and their release from that facility. By extension, it ignores structurally different experiences and climates that an inmate can experience within their often-lengthy stays in federal custody, including in pre-trial detention, transfer facilities, residential re-entry offices, and federal facilities outside BOP management.  In some cases, this oversight causes intelligence failures. In 2017, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General found that the FBI and prison officials failed to mitigate threats from an incarcerated homegrown violent extremist in federal custody. The extremist in question was being held at one of several privately-managed prison facilities under BOP oversight.

In the meantime, U.S. authorities have not developed strategies or policy responses to a more immediate and potentially greater risk. Recidivism of terrorist and extremist offenders, often lumped into the “prison radicalisation” framework, has become a significant concern for U.S. counter-terrorism authorities. According to data compiled by the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, over 80 individuals convicted of jihadist-related activity alone will be released from federal custody within the next five years. While only a small number of extremist inmates have been released from federal custody, making a comprehensive assessment about the threat of terrorist recidivism difficult, there are a few pertinent, recent examples of extremist offenders in the U.S. mobilizing after their release. John Georgelas, convicted in 2006 of hacking websites on behalf of the global jihadist movement, served 34 months in federal prison. After his release, Georgelas traveled to Syria with his family, where he became a notable ISIS propagandist. Extremist recidivism spans ideologies: Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., a longtime militant white supremacist who previously served time in federal prison for weapons violations was later sentenced to death for opening fire on the Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas in April 2014.

These incidents highlight the necessity for U.S. counter-terrorism and prisons authorities to separate the question of extremist recidivism from the debate about radicalisation in custody. More attention should be devoted to strengthening in-prison responses to prepare incarcerated extremists for release. For examples of effective programmatic options, while keeping in mind that the U.S. correctional system is in many ways unique, drawing on the experiences of international counterparts in curtailing terrorist recidivism will be paramount. Finally, while completely rejecting the premise of “prison radicalisation” may be equally dangerous, U.S. policymakers should work to define its scope, nature, and limits through data-driven assessment. In any case, the current U.S. approach—neglecting disengagement or deradicalisation programming during incarceration—relies on a hope that lengthy prison sentences and non-tailored interventions alone will convince offenders to turn away from extremism before their release. That hypothesis represents a significant and potentially dangerous counter-terrorism gamble.