Segregate to rehabilitate?

Does isolation in maximum security prisons prevent future acts of terrorism?

Clarke Jones

Arts, culture & society, Law, National security | Australia, The World

19 October 2016

Isolating and segregating terrorist offenders could compound the problem of prison radicalisation, Clarke Jones writes.

Managing terrorist offenders presents many challenges for correctional authorities. Not least among those are monitoring and controlling such offenders. The circumstances under which such control is usually exerted – in isolation and in segregated, specifically designated areas – potentially infringe on religious freedoms and human rights, compound the underlying reasons for offending, reduce the prospects for rehabilitation and increase the chances of recidivism. Management approaches like this are therefore problematic and probably counter-productive.

Corrections NSW and Corrections Victoria, who house the majority of terrorist prisoners in Australia, have adopted two broadly different approaches. In New South Wales, for example, the fear that terrorist inmates will radicalise other offenders has prompted a ‘high-risk AA’ classification and segregation and isolation in the Goulburn supermax jail – regardless of the nature of the terrorist offence. In Victoria, Corrections has adopted a dispersal strategy across several facilities, albeit those deemed disruptive or dangerous are still segregated in maximum security facilities.

While the main justification for segregation and isolation is the risk of prison radicalisation, it is well-established that the overall prevalence of the problem in most countries remains small. Despite that, in Australia, prison radicalisation is still thought of as a growing problem due to the rising number of terrorist offenders. Yet, none of this has been empirically explored and therefore continues to be a poorly understood phenomenon.

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Terrorist offenders are a very small cohort within Australia’s prisons. As of March 2016, there were 37,996 adults incarcerated with only 58 remand and convicted terrorist offenders – 15 in Victoria, 41 in NSW and two in Queensland. Nonetheless, this represents a significant growth since 2013 when there were just 13 terrorist prisoners.

Being able to appropriately respond to radicalised inmates remains challenging, even though there are sophisticated risk assessment tools to identify them. For prison staff not trained as mental health professionals, identifying vulnerable inmates for radicalisation can be problematic. Even if provided with a risk assessment tool, falsely identifying Muslim inmates as radicalised, rather than aggrieved or devoutly religious, can be an easy pitfall for under-trained staff, particularly those holding certain biases. Many may be ignorant about the important role Islam and other religions play in the coping and rehabilitation aspects of incarceration. As the number of adherents continues to grow inside prisons, such misunderstandings can become counter-productive. Further empirical research is required to advance the understanding of Islamic conversion in prison and toward overcoming misconceptions and intolerance.

Research shows that prisoners often become involved in religious groups for a number of reasons, such as seeking belonging, coping with difficult conditions, protection and/or status. Others identify with Islam (and other religions) as a form of repentance for having committed criminal acts. Indeed, research has found that, as religious involvement increases, the number of inmate infractions decreases, highlighting the important role religion can play in rehabilitation.

However, identifying with unacceptable religious values is more likely to occur if prisoners have limited or no outside contact, have their primary external relationships broken by prolonged absence, or feel they are unlikely to be reunited with family or return to some meaningful community role upon release.

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Given that involvement in an inmate subculture is usually affected by an offender’s criminal history and that past offences are generally a good predictor of future offending, inmates who have not been incarcerated for terrorist offences are therefore less likely to become radicalised. It should also be acknowledged that not all those with sympathies towards extremist ideologies become terrorists or violent offenders.

In some ways, religion functions much like gang affiliation in its connection to other people. Like gangs, religious affiliation can provide safety, contact with others, and a sense of social solidarity and higher purpose. But for those who may have experienced a loss of significance, such as humiliation, personal failure, a desire for respect or to be someone, acts of violence to achieve this – sometimes in the name of religion – can arise.

Conditions of isolation and segregation have the potential to arouse a sense of lost significance, which could prompt a vulnerable offender to restore it by committing violent acts against another inmate or in the community upon release. In such conditions, there is unequivocal evidence to show that tension, stress and other mental health issues can also arise. The use of isolation may also act to reinforce the psychology of exclusivity and ‘martyrdom’ among terrorist offenders and could even work to foster or magnify the root causes that led individuals towards terrorism.

There is no doubt that those who conduct grave acts of violence should be punished. The strategies for punishment, however, require a lot more serious consideration here in Australia. If segregation and isolation contribute to compounding prison radicalisation, then dispersal strategies must be better explored to reduce the chances of future offending.

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