Scant evidence prisons are terrorist breeding grounds: federal research

Federal prisons are not the hotbeds of radical extremism some make them out to be, according to research by the Correctional Service of Canada.

OTTAWA — Federal prisons are not the hotbeds of radical extremism some make them out to be, according to research by the Correctional Service of Canada.

And compared to other inmates, radicalized offenders are more likely to have moderate-to-high potential for rejoining society.

The preliminary findings emerge from an ongoing, multi-year collaboration between the prison service and Defence Research and Development Canada aimed at developing a solid basis to assess and manage jailed extremists.

The Canadian Press used the Access to Information Act to obtain a 2014 summary of a series of academic studies undertaken by the Correctional Service’s research branch. Internal notes suggest the presentation, Radicalized Offenders, was prepared for the deputy ministers’ committee on national security.

“Though concern over the spread of violent ideologies has been expressed, this concern is supported by limited qualitative, anecdotal evidence,” says the presentation.

“Researchers have concluded that many of those who adopt extremist Islamist ideologies during incarceration often disregard these beliefs upon release.”

However, the presentation adds, there is a need for a greater understanding of just how susceptible inmates are to being radicalized behind bars.

One of the gunmen in the bloody attack on Paris-based satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last January had come under the sway of a convicted terrorist while in prison — the sort of incident that has fuelled concern about the spread of radical ideas in jail.

As of this month, there were 19 offenders in Canadian federal prisons who had at least one affiliation with an extremist or terrorist organization, including racial extremists, the Correctional Service says. Of these, nine had been convicted of at least one terrorism-related offence.

Researchers found that compared to other inmates, radicalized offenders are less likely to be Canadian citizens and more likely to belong to a visible minority group.

They are also younger, better educated, more likely to have a history of stable employment and less likely to have had previous tangles with the criminal justice system. Radicalized offenders also have fewer mental health issues and problems with substance abuse.

Overall, they are more likely “to be assessed as having moderate-high reintegration potential,” the presentation says.

A review of the research literature identified several factors that might make someone vulnerable to being radicalized, including poor support at home, a history of family violence, negative attitudes towards conventional society and a tendency to lodge grievances.

Though more research is needed, focus group discussions with staff working in prisons and the community identified two distinct groups of susceptible offenders.

The first type were socially unattached, unskilled and likely to be recruited to carry out a group’s mundane “dirty work.” The second kind were socially connected, educated and recruited for their skills and abilities.

“Staff expressed concerns that recruitment of susceptible offenders could increase the size of the radicalized offender population and create management challenges,” the presentation says.

Internal notes say the Correctional Service doesn’t have specific programs for radicalized offenders.

In response to questions, a prison service spokeswoman said the agency continues to review the most effective practices for managing such inmates.

The agency tailors existing practices to each offender as part of the inmate’s correctional plan, drawing on psychological and chaplaincy services as well as education and employment programs, she said.

“A correctional plan is produced for each offender, which becomes the blueprint for their sentence and is used to measure their progress towards their correctional goals.”

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