LONDON (Reuters) - Western prisons could root out militant Islamism among inmates by adopting the more imaginative approaches to prisoners used in parts of the Middle East and Asia, a British study suggests.
The provision of religious advice and helping prisoners cultivate non-extremist social networks are among measures proposed in the study of prisons in 15 countries.
Britain’s chief prison inspector said last month the treatment of Muslim inmates by prison staff as potentially dangerous militants risked driving them into the hands of radical groups.
Prisons occupy a central place in the history of militant Islamist groups such as al Qaeda which see them as valued centers of learning, recruitment and indoctrination.
Creative programs can turn the tide, argues the study of prison militants in Afghanistan, Algeria, Britain, Egypt, France, Indonesia, Israel, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Spain, the United States and Yemen.
For example in Singapore, alleged terrorists are systematically re-educated in prison, said the report by London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR).
A team of trained religious advisers helps them go through the Koran, showing how critical passages need to be read in context, and how extremist notions about violence are often based on misreadings and misinterpretations, the report says.
Prisons can be “a place for reform as well as radicalization,” Peter Neumann, study author and director of ICSR based at London University’s King’s College, told Reuters.
“Prisons can play a positive role in tackling problems of radicalization and terrorism in society as a whole.”
Most Western prison systems practiced a “security first” approach with radicalized inmates, Neumann said, arguing this amounted to “locking people away and making sure they don’t cause any trouble.” Opportunities for reform were missed.
In Saudi Arabia, officials spend heavily to reform and re-integrate former militants to try to ensure they can look forward to a meaningful and productive life after leaving prison, the report says. In some cases, this process has included buying them houses and cars, and even finding them wives.
“None of the de-radicalization programs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia is perfect,” said Neumann.
“But they should serve as an inspiration for people in the West to think more creatively about what positive things could be done with radicals and terrorists in the state’s custody.”
Neumann said this approach would not work everywhere, because de-radicalization depended on a conducive environment.
Releasing people into hostile communities with no further supervision would not work because all good de-radicalization programs were based on follow-up and after-care, which in case of Afghanistan for example was difficult, he said.
The study’s proposed measures include:
— A mix of education, typically combining ideological and/or religious re-education with vocational training.
— Appointing credible interlocutors, who can relate to prisoners’ personal and psychological needs.
— Sophisticated methods for locking prisoners into multiple commitments and obligations toward family and community.
Editing by Andrew Dobbie