Prisons are no stranger to terrorism. Long before the recruitment efforts of Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Europe started, the IRA, the Red Brigades, and the Red-Army Faction (RAF) all made prisons and prisoners an important pillar of terrorist activities. The harshness of 20th-century prison environments helped European terrorist groups support and further develop propaganda and, in some cases, extremist groups arose precisely from these inhumane conditions.
Nevertheless, in the past few years, Europe seemed caught by surprise when it came to light that many homegrown European terrorists had previously spent time in prison. Prison regimes and policies are now a key point of contention in discussions about radicalization.
Europe’s efforts to combat radicalization thus far
Indeed, over the last decade, most European Union (EU) Member States have been forced to confront the dilemma of radicalized inmates in prison—both to contain the threat and prepare them for reintegration into society. Pressure on governments has further increased due to scrutiny from the general public.
As the European Union has taken action to address the issue, demand for concrete measures has gradually grown. A quick look at the policy documents published by the EU shows this crescendo.
The very first European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy was adopted in November 2005. Following the same structure as the United Kingdom’s Counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST), the EU’s approach comprised of four pillars: prevent, protect, pursue, respond.
Under the first pillar, “prevent,” the strategy identified "[to] address incitement and recruitment in key environments, for example, prisons […]" as one of the key priorities. Identifying the right conditions for preventing radicalization was not enough. First line practitioners need to be empowered to take concrete action. Thus, the Council adopted the EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment in 2005, followed by an EU Action Plan on combating terrorism—both of which were revised in 2008 and 2014—to enhance the role of first line practitioners, including prison workers, through training and capacity building.
In the wake of the digital revolution and the financial crisis, which had the power to act as multipliers of grievances and in turn increase internal security threats, the European Commission launched the EU Internal Security Strategy (EU ISS) in 2010. One of its objectives targeted radicalization and recruitment.
The strategy paved the way for the creation of the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) in September 2011. Intended as a network of first-line practitioners, the RAN has a working group on prison and probation, which has developed into a reference point for prison and probation officers all over Europe by gathering expertise and exchanging practices in this area.
Heightened demand for action
The attack on a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 and the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris during January 2015 brutally reinforced awareness of the continued role of prisons in radicalizing young Europeans. Pressed between an unprecedented migration flow and an equally unprecedented internal security threat, the European Commission published the EU Agenda on Migration, followed by the EU Agenda on Security.
In the latter, the European Commission stressed again the need to enhance the exchange of good practices for training prison staff in the prevention of radicalization in prison and the development of de-radicalization programs. Educating workers and interventions in prisons became key features of these initiatives.
In the context of recent attacks, prison and probation staff demanded concrete answers in place of more questions about the proper way to deal with radicalized inmates. The European Council summarised the main areas of concern for practitioners in its November 2015 conclusions: detention regimes, alternative measures to detention, rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates, staff training, exchange of good practices, funding, and external dimension. The front-line thus expanded significantly for practitioners.
Today’s policies and resources
The pressure on prison and probation systems, however, was only set to increase. In 2017, the newly adopted EU Directive on combating terrorism required Member States to transpose the criminalization of acts in support of terrorist attacks in their national legislation by September 2018, including the financing of terrorism, undertaking training or traveling for terrorist purposes or organizing travel for others, and more. The increased criminalization of terrorism-related offenses meant that national prison systems had to adapt and prepare for the new challenges ahead.
Meanwhile, a few international fora had developed guidelines and handbook on the management of radicalized inmates in prison and probation. These include the GCTF Rome Memorandum on Good Practices for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Violent Extremist Offenders (2012), the UNODC Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons (2016), and the Council of Europe Handbook for Prison and Probation Services Regarding Radicalisation and Violent Extremism (2016).
In late 2016, the RAN working group also published the paper, Approaches to Violent Extremist Offenders and Countering Radicalisation in Prisons and Probation. The RAN updates its collection of promising practices regularly, among which those related to prison and probation. In this regard, RAN working group cooperated with EuroPris, the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services, to collect training materials developed in European Prison Services dealing with radicalization issues.
A High-Level Commission Expert Group on Radicalisation (HLCEG-R), set up by the European Commission in 2017, published a June 2018 report, identifying prison and probation as a priority area. It called for improved exchanges and further developed knowledge sharing, especially when working with chaplains and imams active in these environments.
Further methods of prevention
Member States would enhance their capabilities and find greater success in dealing with radicalized inmates by mapping existing counter-radicalization practices in countering radicalization and supporting rehabilitation and reintegration in prison and probation programs. The HLCEG-R called upon the Commission to facilitate a repository of relevant handbooks, in addition to voluntary peer reviews, study visits, further research, and additional funding for exit, rehabilitation, and reintegration programmes.
Awareness about radicalization in prison is higher than ever, but an ongoing need to consolidate a patchy and scattered knowledge base remains. The radicalized inmate dilemma has been a difficult climb, but also of successful examples and—most importantly—of lessons learned.
Handbooks and other written materials are vital outcomes of this learning curve. But, ultimately, peer reviews and study visits are the preferred tools for increasing capabilities of front-line practitioners and national stakeholders.
The past years and the work of RAN have been paramount to garnering attention around this critical issue; the next step is to build upon the heightened awareness. The European Commission has long-standing and successful experience in using mutual learning to raise consciousness and develop expertise in a specific field. Now, this strength must be applied to the prevention of radicalization, particularly in prison and probation settings.