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Violent Extremism and Its Roots in the U.S. Corrections System
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 08/10/2015

Inmates 3 For most of the duration of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn (which replaced Iraqi Freedom on September 1, 2010), Camp Bucca in southern Iraq was the major facility for incarcerating terrorists, insurgents, and others detained as a result of military operations. Though the facility closed before U.S. forces departed Iraq, its legacy remains. Experts believe that the facility played a key role in the subsequent formation of the Islamic State; terrorism researchers at the Soufan Group propose that at least nine members of the Islamic State’s senior leadership spent time incarcerated at Camp Bucca.

The radicalization and conversion to violent extremism of inmates is nothing new. White supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have been radicalizing new members in U.S. prisons for at least two decades now, and in fact many authorities argue that these groups pose a more significant threat because of simple numbers: a former Department of Homeland Security analyst told the Washington Post that Islamic radicals in U.S. prisons probably numbered in the hundreds, compared to tens of thousands of right-wing extremists. The United Kingdom also experienced an unforeseen surge in radicalization when it began incarcerating large numbers of Irish Republican Army members during the 1970s.

Prison provides fertile ground for radicalization because of the unique set of circumstances it represents. First, inmates are often angry at the system that incarcerated them, and in many cases that anger may be generalized blame of “the government” or American society. Second, incarceration represents a personal crisis for most offenders (especially those incarcerated for the first time), and such crises often prompt a personal search for spiritual understanding—what was long colloquially called “finding God in prison.” Third, offenders may well seek acceptance by a group that will provide some degree of protection in the prison environment. Fourth, in many cases charismatic leaders have extensive, repeated, and virtually undisturbed opportunities to teach their particular brand of ideology to converts. This fourth factor was the most significant at Camp Bucca, which one military veteran called a “virtual terrorist university.”

Naturally, conversion to a religious ideology in a correctional setting may not be entirely sincere, and even if it is sincere at the time, that dedication may not survive the offender’s subsequent release from prison. Researchers for the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 who interviewed numerous prison chaplains as part of the study found that those chaplains divided prison converts into five general categories. The “crisis convert” is responding to the trauma of incarceration. The “protection-seeking convert” is looking for security. The “searching convert” is an offender with little pre-incarceration experience with religion who, now exposed to many different faiths and with plenty of time to examine them, embarks on a “spiritual quest.” Many such converts end up as “serial joiners,” experimenting with a number of different religions. The “manipulating convert” is seeking the benefits of prison religious programming such as special diets, attendance at meetings and classes, the opportunity to wear religious garb or symbols, or simply the perceived advantage of being viewed as “moral, pro-social, and law-abiding” by correctional (and parole) officials. Finally, the “free-world recruited convert” is influenced not by fellow inmates but by a religious leader who visits the facility from outside, such as through a prison ministry program.

To what extent U.S. prisons actually generate any significant number of actual terrorists is widely debated, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. One researcher found only seven cases of prison-related Islamic terrorism in the U.S. and U.K. combined. Yet Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) has sponsored multiple hearings on the subject and insisted earlier this year that U.S. prisons are still not doing enough to monitor radical imams teaching in those facilities. Unfortunately, although the U.S. Department of Justice established the Correctional Intelligence Initiative in 2004 to monitor Islamic extremism, the program failed to publish any findings or reports that might better answer such questions.

Not all Islamic groups found in prisons have leanings toward modern radical Islam. The Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam date from the 1920s and 1930s respectively and were an African-American response to the racism then prevalent in the U.S. It was not until the 1970s that traditional Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi strains of Islam began to become commonplace. Researchers estimate that 30,000 to 40,000 prison conversions to Islam now take place each year at all levels (municipal, state, and federal), but of course conversion rarely equates to radicalization. However, there have been definite external efforts to use U.S. prisons to recruit new jihadists, even if those efforts may have enjoyed only limited success. Al Qaeda training manuals specifically recommend U.S. prisons as possible recruiting grounds since inmates are likely to feel at least some degree of hostility toward the U.S. government. Various Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Islam groups have spent significant amounts of money to distribute proselytizing literature into U.S. correctional facilities.

Much research indicates that adherence to Islam tends to have a positive effect on offenders, who build self-discipline, avoid violence, and prepare for life after prison. Yet there are also examples of well-known terrorists who converted to Islam in prison, including Jose Padilla (convicted of planning an attack with a “dirty bomb”) and Richard Reid (the 2001 “shoe bomber”) in the U.S. as well as several others who conducted attacks elsewhere in the world and were radicalized in prisons in the U.K., Morocco, and Spain.

The question of Islamic radicalization in prisons is a complex one, as well as one fraught with political significance for many involved in the debate. It seems most likely that the vast majority of offenders who convert to Islam during incarceration and remain committed to the religion after release are probably sincere followers of mainstream Islam and no more prone to violence than anyone else. Yet while facilities like Camp Bucca and Guantanamo Bay are extreme examples, it is undeniable that they provided significant opportunities for the radicalization of new recruits, so it stands to reason that at least a handful of individuals already prone to violence and ill-adjusted to society could be radicalized in U.S. prisons as well.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters



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