Since the Paris attacks last November, when 130 people died, the French and Belgian intelligence services have traced most of the jihadists’ past to time they spent in custody.
It begs the question what role prison plays in turning disaffected youth to radical ideologies.
Two of the terrorists involved in the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket shootings in January 2015 spent time in prison, according to the French intelligence agency.
It was in the Fleury-Mérogis prison in Paris that Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly met and were introduced to their spiritual mentor Djamel Beghal, an Islamist recruited in the Al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
Defence analysts argue that prisons are a breeding ground for radicalisation, leaving marginalised young offenders subject to the influence of extremists.
Around 283 detainees are in prisons for conspiracy to commit terrorists acts and 152 of them are radical Islamists, according to a report from the French Minister of Justice last February.
“To explain [terrorism] is to excuse it,” said the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in January at a public memorial for the kosher supermarket shootings. The hardline stance his socialist government took has not given dialogue a chance.
When French authorities discovered that the Charlie Hebdo attackers had met in prison, they decided to counteract with the creation of five units in prison.
These cell blocks are used to isolate prisoners suspected of terrorism, to prevent them preaching extremist ideologies to other inmates.
Four days after the attacks in January 2015, this segregation policy was put in place in the largest prisons, after a pilot in the prison at Fresnes, on the outskirts of Paris.
The programme of de-radicalisation in France has brought confusion to the judicial system, and is seen by critics as creating a stigma around the Muslim community.
The prisoners are chosen through a “detection grid”, a survey of 21 questions designed to decide if someone has tendencies which could lead to terrorist activities.
The questions include any changes of clothing or eating habits that the authorities notice, such as wearing a djellaba outside the cell or giving up pork.
The survey also looks at the social behaviour of prisoners, from praying collectively to preaching a radical version of the Quran.
This “detection grid”, was criticised by human rights campaigners and prison specialist think-tanks as “inaccurate”.
The Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté (CGLPL), France’s prison watchdog, denounced the system as “a real risk of discrimination and stigmatisation of those targeted.”
Sociologists and critics of the prison scheme have warned of the greater danger of radicalisation with this policy of containment.
“Prison might have been one of the stimulants,” Camille Rosa tells Artefact.
She works for the French section of the International Observatory of Prisons (OIP), one of the leading European NGOs concerned with prisoners’ human rights.
The OIP latest report has been very critical of the measures taken to limit radicalisation.
“We think that the prison, a violent and dehumanising institution, where few activities are put in place for the prisoners who often spend 22 hours out of 24 in their cells, contributes to the increase of recidivism and forges the way for marginalised lives in isolating the inmates,” she tells Artefact.
The principle of containing the prisoners can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Radicalised detainees feel themselves part of the disaffected,” says Ouisa Kies, a French sociologist who led workshops and research during the pilot-test in the prisons of Fresnes and Osny.
“Radicalised detainees feel themselves part of the disaffected”
“Feeling discriminated, this victimisation provokes an accumulation of frustations,” Ouisa Kies said, adding, “this can turn them into violence.”
“[They have] little contact with the outside world, no possibility to communicate, many obstacles and little help in building a socio-professional rehabilitation project,” explains Camilla Rosa from the French IOP.
Muslim counsellors have little presence in the French prison system as they do not have any professional status, giving the opportunity for radical self-proclaimed imams to influence their inmates.
“We don’t often talk about the role of the prison administration, with probation and rehabilitation officers. Muslim counsellors are volunteers, they are mainly helping the detainees to have access to worship,” says Kies.
Last month France decided to set up another de-radicalisation programme in prisons. It includes the placement of a hundred counsellors, psychologists and cell guards inside two prisons – in Osny and in Lille-Annoeulin – to untie the stigma against practicing Muslims through dialogue.
De-radicalisation in Belgian prisons has been less aggressive than in France towards prisoners convicted of crimes related to terrorism or conspiracy to commit terrorism acts.
Koen Geens, the justice minister, followed the anti-terrorism action plans in countries like the UK and Denmark, where disengagement in radicalism and rehabilitation within society were seen as priorities.
“The political fight against radicalisation is still in its infancy”
According to the latest figures from OCAM, the Belgian secret service specialising in terrorism, 269 young Belgians have fled the country to train in Syria and Iraq.
“The political fight against radicalisation is still in its infancy,” says Nicolas Cohen, a French lawyer working for the Belgium OIP, who has defended many clients accused of being part of terrorist networks.
Even if the Belgian regime for radicalised prisoners has been directed towards a better comprehensive system to help detainees reintegrate society, Cohen told Artefact this isn’t enough when it comes to those suspected of radicalisation.
“Many of them are placed in isolation,” he says, adding that these isolations which the Belgian federal justice system put them in are under “neither real control nor any suitable medical care.”
Ouisa Kies and the French OIP view the radicalisation process as part of wider factors such as social and economic factors, when the majority of French and Belgian jihadists come from low socio-economic suburbs known as the banlieues.
“Politicians have used the emotional discourse because society is sick since more than twenty years and so they avoid talking about the major issues,” says Kies.
“Other places such as family, school, sports clubs and social networks have not been scrutinised as much as the prison system to work against or prevent radicalisation,” she adds.
Around 86 per cent of the people convicted or accused of terrorism have been radicalised outside the prison system, according to the latest figures from the French Minister of Justice.
“Prison has never permitted rehabilitation,” says Ouisa, who still runs the programme held responsible to detect and take care of radicalised detainees in France.
“Prison has always been the place where dangerous individuals are held to protect us,” she said, adding, “So what is the role of prison?”
Photo courtesy of Alexandre Vanier via Pixabay CC