What to do with terrorist prisoners

When a terrorist cell is disrupted, or an individual is arrested at the airport on his or her way to Turkey to join a group like Islamic State, the media rises to the challenge and splashes the news across all platforms.  The public responds in kind and for a short time the blogosphere and news show circuit hums with theories and analysis, both genuine and crackpot.  Since, at least in a country like Canada, the lag between arrest and trial is usually very long, months at a minimum and often years, interest wanes and may only give way to a temporary blip of excitement when testimony is given.  Once the trial is over, that is that for the vast majority, and life resumes its normal trajectory.

Except that this is not the end, far from it.  If terrorists are found guilty they go to prison.  And that is where the challenge merely begins.

Prisons are home to people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds, have a range of “issues” (psychological, social, etc.) and who are deprived of liberty because the State has decided that they pose a threat to society.  If you talk to experts and criminologists there are a series of crimogenic factors that often lead to antisocial and violent behaviour.  Decades of research and practice have led to many solidly based treatment programmes, all implemented to help prisoners reform and be in a position to rejoin society at the end of their sentences, ideally as productive members.  The default position has been to apply our knowledge to extremists in the same way.  This may not be a good thing.

The first problem when it comes to terrorist inmates, at least within a Canadian correctional setting (the one I know best), is that they are not “typical” prisoners.  They do not normally issue from the stereotypical “criminal” environment – low education, low self-esteem, dysfunctional families, substance abuse, criminal pasts and other social ills.  It is thus far from clear whether the usual approaches designed for the average inmate will have significant impact (how does completing high school apply to a PhD candidate like Chiheb Esseghaier, one of the accused in the 2013 VIA passenger rail plot)?

The second, and perhaps more immediate, issue is how to house them.  Should extremist prisoners be isolated from other inmates to prevent further radicalisation?  Is isolation consistent with human rights?  While we may nip contagion in the bud, do we hamper rehabilitation by setting the terrorists aside?

History is of little help here since both approaches (isolation and dispersal) have been tried.  Many countries have elected to keep terrorists away from other prisoners and lodge them all in a single, high security facility (the UK response to the IRA comes to mind).  The obvious disadvantage to that approach is that you concentrate ideologically committed extremists, including the leadership, in one mass, thus assuring further radicalisation that will likely not dissipate upon the expiry of their time behind bars.

If, on the other hand, the decision is made to spread the problem among several institutions to prevent critical masses from festering, other problems arise.  This strategy does have the down side of opening up the possibility of planting the seed for violent extremism in centres where it previously had no hold.

If recent events are any indication, national corrections authorities have come down clearly on the side of keeping extremists together and away from those who may be violent but are not extreme:

We will see in time whether these measures have any impact on extremists behind bars.  It is not fair to criticise the policies adopted by authorities since no one has any solid idea on the best approach to take.  This is one area where we are still learning, and the curve is steep.

Canadian authorities should be given credit here.  They have spent time looking at the issue and figuring out what best works in this country.  While the tiny number of those in jail for terrorism makes study – and recommendations – difficult, it is nevertheless  an advantage that our small problem will probably not metastasise into a plague within our penal institutions.

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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