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A man identified by a lawyer as Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers implicated in the who killed 12 people in the attack on the weekly paper Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, is seen in this still image outside a Paris courthouse while facing charges of helping smuggle Islamist fighters into Iraq, in March 19, 2008.


Why some prisons produce terrorists

Ryan Williams

Published Wednesday, Feb. 04, 2015 04:53AM EST

Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 04, 2015 07:16AM EST

Ryan Williams is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the Department for Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary, and an associate member in the Prisons Research Centre at Cambridge University

With the news that Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers behind the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, went from petty criminal to violent jihadi after just 20 months behind bars, prisons, more than ever, are under scrutiny for their role in fostering terrorism.

Prisons have a long record of breeding radicals, including the planner of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber.” Sayyid Qutb, after all, wrote his treatise on radical Islamist thought, Milestones, while in prison in Egypt 50 years ago.

But the evidence is overwhelming that only specific prisons breed terrorism. Mark Hamm, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State University, has identified a handful of prisons that have bred more terrorists than others, including Feltham Young Offenders Institution in the U.K., Topas prison in Spain, New Folsom Prison in the U.S. and, unsurprisingly, Guantanamo.

As Canada’s correctional service responds to the threat that federal prisons may be breeding grounds for Islamist radicalization, it needs to focus as much on the prison conditions that generate terrorism as it does on the risk posed by particular individuals. What, then, makes a prison more likely to produce terrorists?

Together with three researchers from Cambridge University, my research in Britain has attempted to take a broader look at the problem of radicalization in prisons to address this question. Over 18 months, we studied the differences between two maximum-security prisons. We did so through surveys and interviews with staff and prisoners, and fieldwork that involved walking the yards with prisoners and playing floor hockey with staff. We also organized a class with prisoners where we each taught material from our respective interests at Cambridge, including theology and religious studies.

English prisons, it’s important to note, differ from their North American counterparts. Prison officers (or guards) maintain security through relationships that are developed and maintained with prisoners. Knowing prisoners, their routines, moods, likes and dislikes allows guards to know when conflict might occur that threatens “order and control,” which is essential to the functioning of prisons.

That people may commit atrocities upon leaving prison is not entirely surprising to us, having spent so many working weeks in prisons. Prisons are heavy places – but they differ in important ways. Here are three that we consider relevant to prisoner radicalization:

Political charge: This is the amount of anger and alienation that different prisons generate. Prisons are naturally places of anger and alienation, but our results show that different prisons, at different times, generate more of these feelings than others. Our in-depth fieldwork in these prisons makes some sense of our survey findings as prisoners expressed the differences between prisons as one of feeling “like a statistic,” compared to feeling “like a person”;

Trust: Small amounts of guarded trust in otherwise trust-less places replace prisoners’ feeling that they are objects of fear and risk with a sense of humanity. Having trust placed in you opens up possibilities. In prisons, a small amount of trust from a guard – such as being given a job as a wing cleaner – instills a sense of humanity and creates a bond across an otherwise unbridgeable gap between the keeper and the kept. Trust can be professionally and safely placed. Fear and distrust can be misplaced, depriving people of dignity;

Legitimacy: Prisons differ in how just or fair prisoners perceive their jail to be. Unfair treatment of one group of prisoners over another, inconsistent policies, lack of family contact, and the nature and quality of relationships with staff all contribute to the extent to which prisoners perceive the prison, and by extension, the state, as legitimate.

We found that different prisons give rise to different expressions of religion. In the prisons we studied, some wings had up to 30 per cent of prisoners self-identifying as Muslim. In one facility, Islam provided an important source of meaning and community, with many prisoners converting to Islam. In another prison, conversion away from Islam (e.g. to Rastafarianism, a newly recognized religion in English prisons) occurred frequently, and religious doubt was freely expressed. So religion is expressed differently across prisons, challenging the view that radicalization is a necessary product of imprisonment and that radical religion is necessarily bred in prisons.

Canada needs to take responsibility for the problem of radicalization as a human and social problem. In responding to radicalization in prisons, we should avoid looking exclusively at individual Muslim prisoners who are “at risk” and reflect on the state of our prisons and the role they may play in creating risky individuals. Placing the spotlight on Muslims in prisons and viewing them through a risk-lens is unhelpful, and can even damage the relationships that are so important in prisons and to rehabilitation.

This research included Prof. Alison Liebling, Dr. Ruth Armstrong and Dr. Richard Bramwell at Cambridge University and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.