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Combating inmate radicalization in corrections

An important problem with radicalized inmates is that they provide few — if any — indicators that they are about to commit acts of terror

By Gene Atherton and Andjela Jurisic

The greatest concern of correctional professionals over the decades has been unwelcome surprises. They result in escapes, riots, lethal assaults, and uses of force. If an inmate has a history of violence, reckless behavior, and association with others of similar histories, it helps staff anticipate the behavior with training, resources, and protocol.

An important problem with radicalized inmates is that they provide few — if any — indicators that they are about to commit acts of terror. They come from the margins suddenly into the focus of the crises. We are compelled to learn in times of global terrorism from experiences around the world, and as such we note the European Union’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, who said in January 2015 that “We know that prisons are a massive incubator for radicalisation”.

This article will examine the process of inmate radicalization with suggestions for effective management strategies.

Characteristics of Inmates at Risk of Radicalization
It is typically the inmate who stands out as seeing himself as a victim of society who is completely justified in their criminal behavior. Upon finding over the years that the criminal life is often lonely, unrewarding and painful, like most people in the world, he or she seeks inclusion or association with a philosophy or social relationship that provide support and acceptance.

Regardless of the reality of the condition, that person sees his or her new role model of the religious belief or gang philosophy as the pathway to acceptance, definition and purpose that previously did not exist in their lives. For those benefits, the newly radicalized inmate is willing to commit acts of terror in exchange for inclusion while serving their time in the prison environment.

Strategies for Managing Radicalization in Corrections Populations
It seems anymore in corrections that you can’t do anything without good intelligence. In partnership with technology the corrections profession has grown massively in developing the systems for the daunting task of identifying and tracking inmates who are likely to radicalize others and their targets. As we profile inmates coming into the system for potential as victims of sexual assault, we can profile those who might have high potential for radicalization. By knowing who they are we can apply resources to individuals most likely to be involved. Some agencies have organized resources around critical incident reporting, incident management, and sophisticated sharing of inmate organizations.

Most everyone agrees, that “radicalization occurs through a process of one-on-one proselytizing by charismatic leaders”1. It makes sense that correctional leadership martial’s resources towards bolstering relationships among key staff and inmates. Those relationships can, at minimum, mitigate the urgency by which radicalization takes place. It can demonstrate other behavior choices that promise success in a civilized, legal pattern. Religious service leadership can strongly negate efforts to radicalize inmates. Whether it is done at a single facility or from a central point in regional or nation corrections systems, it can heavily influence inmate behavior based upon the peace and co-existence premises of all religions. It can provide the same meaning and purpose sought in the radicalization process. These programs must be carefully managed for success.

Cognitive restructuring programs are based upon the notion that there is a thought that precedes all acts of behavior. If a program changes how an inmate thinks, so shall his or her behavior change. If, like the candidate for radicalization believes, life is been unsuccessful, lonely, and painful, they can think differently which will lead to behavior that produces success like never before. Programs in this area for inmates and corrections staff throughout the US have proved dramatically successful. Such programs have changed the entire mood of the correctional population. Without abandoning the need for a spiritual life, such changes in thinking makes the value of radicalization seem less important.

If trends around the world are considered it is not surprising that “Over the years our Federal Prisons have become a breeding ground for radicalization”2. It is the job of US Corrections to choose strategies that help prepare professionals to be successful in managing inmate population challenges. Leadership behavior needs to inspire success and choose strategies that effectively manage the process of radicalization of inmates in corrections.

1Terrorist Recruitment in American Correctional Institutions: An Exploratory Study of Non-Traditional Faith Groups”, Mark S. Hamm, Ph.D, Department of Criminology, Indiana State University. National Institute of Justice, December 2007., page 5, second paragraph.
2Press Release from the office of Congressman Stephen Fincher introducing The Prevent Terrorism From Entering Our Prisons Act (HR 4285), December 18, 2015.

About the Author
Andjela Jurisic is CCSG’s expert on managing terrorist inmates in prison, and addressing violence and sexual assault in detention. She has 20 years of experience in capacity building & mentoring of diverse stakeholders in the justice and corrections sector. Her work with international organizations, such as the United Nations’ Missions in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan; and with NATO’s military operations in the Balkans and Central Asia; as well as with the American Bar Association and the European Unions’ Police Mission provide her with a valuable network of contacts and collaborative methods of de-radicalization and re-integration of combatants.

Her extensive expertise of working in hostile environments, characterized by insurgencies, political turmoil, civil unrest and fragile states has given her far-reaching insights into radicalization, extremism and the individual’s role in the organization (i.e. foot soldiers vs leaders). For example, her assignment in Sri Lanka directly contributed to the successful re-integration of former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam combatants into civilian society through risk assessments of extremist inmates along with community-led rehabilitation options.

Focusing on the Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders (Global Counterterrorism Forum), she has advised governments on security sector reform (SSR) and the integrated management of insurgent and terrorist inmates in transitional settings.

In her current position as Justice Advisor in Afghanistan, she is in charge of Victim and Witness Assistance focusing on the implementation of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (LEVAW). She works with key justice sector stakeholders to improve and coordinate response mechanisms to sexual and gender-based violence; streamline reporting and documentation systems in ministries; advance victim support referral arrangements among service providers; educate and train judges, prosecutors, lawyers, victim advocates; and improve the public’s unhindered access to justice.

Gene Atherton is currently in his 40th year of service in the criminal justice field. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting thru the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has served as mentor to Afghan Corrections Leadership and as a subject matter expert to the United States Embassy in Afghanistan. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He is currently serving as an expert for the United States Department of Justice in the application of the CRIPA act to the Alabama Department of Corrections. Finally, Mr. Atherton currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association, and as an ACA standards compliance auditor for the nation of Mexico.