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“Prisons can be places where the views of VEOs are challenged, no matter how different their cause or motivation.”


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Managing ( Violent Extremist OffendersVEOs in prison brings additional challenges around each of the core functions of any prison system: maintaining security and order; ensuring decent conditions and fair treatment; and providing opportunities for rehabilitation. In an insecure world, where ideologies have been distorted to justify extremist violence, there is an even greater need for authorities to demonstrate that VEOs have been deprived of their liberty in a manner that is consistent with international standards. Badly run prisons create the physical and ideological space in which extremist recruiters can operate freely and, at the same time, reinforce the VEOs’ view that they have been treated unfairly by the State.

One of the key questions for any prison system is whether VEOs should be concentrated in separate units or dispersed among the general high security prison population. Allowing VEOs to mix freely can enable them to seek out and successfully recruit fellow prisoners. On the other hand, segregating VEOs in separate blocks enables them to maintain an organisational hierarchy and hone their operational skills. International experience suggests that there are no hard and fast rules about whether VEOs should be concentrated or separated. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Most countries practise a policy of dispersal of most low level VEOs among a small number of high security prisons and concentration of high level VEOs in special units. Other than in very few cases, there is no justification for the complete isolation or segregation of individual VEOs from the rest of the prison population or from other VEOs.

Of particular concern to prison administrations is that sophisticated extremists may devise ways to turn prisons into training camps that are breeding grounds for violent extremism. In these ‘incubators of terrorism’, as some people refer to prisons, susceptible offenders can be radicalised into violent extremism, with some of them committing terrorist acts following their release. The evidence for such a view is somewhat limited but prison systems must meet the challenge by putting in place mechanisms for detecting and preventing radicalisation within prisons. Prison authorities require adequate tools to prevent VEOs from radicalising their fellow prisoners. Situational and contextual factors and enablers need to be carefully monitored and tracked by prison officials.

It has been argued that certain prison environments can facilitate radicalisation, in particular where there is severe overcrowding and underfunded rehabilitation activities. Unsafe and disorderly prisons aggravate the conditions that make prisoners vulnerable to radicalisation. Extremists will find it easier to fill the (spiritual and material) vacuum created by prisons that fail to provide prisoners with a set of meaningful activities towards which their energies can be directed. These crowded and under-resourced prisons can also create a ‘safety dilemma’ in which prisoners feel compelled to turn to extremists for protection. Prison administrators should take action to prevent VEOs from ‘grooming’ other prisoners and focus on identifying ‘at risk’ prisoners on the basis of information gathered from staff and from engagement with individual offenders.

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