The debate over prison conditions for convicted terrorists

There was a very interesting juxtaposition of stories on violent extremism this week in two Western, democratic nations where two acts of terrorism shocked their populace’s in recent years.  Oddly enough, in an era where we almost instinctively associate terrorism with Islamist extremism, these two were right-wing in nature.  And, the perpetrators of these acts of mass violence were both seeking some kind of easing of the penalties imposed on them for their actions.

The two perpetrators are Alexandre Bissonnette in Canada and Anders Breivik in Norway (odd fact: both men have the initials AB).  The former was the young man who entered a Quebec City mosque in January 2016 and shot six men at prayer dead and wounded five others.  The latter placed a bomb outside a government building in Oslo in August 2011, killing eight and wounding at least 209 people and moved on to a Norwegian Labour Party  youth gathering on Utoya Island, shooting 68 to death and wounding 105.  Both men are guilty: Breivik is already in prison and Bissonnette is in the midst of being sentenced.

What is interesting and why I have elected to put them together in this blog, aside from similarities in motivation, is the attempt in both cases to gain easier conditions for incarceration.  The lawyers for Bissonnette are arguing that the possibility he will have to serve six life sentences consecutively (NB in Canada life = 25 years normally), implying he could be locked up for 150 years – in essence meaning he will die in jail unless he is Methuselah- constitutes ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.  Likewise, Breivik has challenged the conditions of his time behind bars, calling it ‘inhumane’  (a court recently dismissed his case in this regard).

For the record, neither Canada nor Norway have the death penalty anymore (de facto Canada abandoned it in 1963 while Norway did away with the ultimate punishment fully in 1979).  Also for the record, I am not in favour of the death penalty although I know a lot of people are, especially in cases of mass murder like these two.

The question remains and it is a good one: what is an appropriate length of incarceration for crimes of this nature?  We have tended to assign greater penalty to serious crimes that are carefully planned (as opposed to spur of the moment ‘crimes of passion’) and acts of terrorism like these are clearly planned in advance.  The fact that they are motivated out of some kind of ideological commitment also calls for more serious jail time in the minds of most people probably (interestingly Bissonnette’s team says he acted out of hatred and not ideology: this can be a fine line that is hard to disaggregate).

What then is an appropriate punishment for mass murder of this ilk?  Is life justified (a loss of freedom in exchange for taking multiple lives?)?  What about rehabilitation and reintegration at some point?  Or do we as a society feel so revolted by these acts of terrorism that we do not want to ‘reward’ the terrorists by dangling the carrot of release, even if it is way down the road?

I do think that terrorism is a special category of offence that requires a special a category of incarceration.  While I do believe that even men like Bissonnette and Breivik do retain the universal right to have their human rights honoured while in prison, they nevertheless have to sacrifice certain privileges in light of what they did.  If not, the deaths of those who suffered at their hands becomes meaningless.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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