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Jihadis account for 82 per cent of European extremist offenders

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation has published a new report looking into the role that prisons can play in radicalising people – and in reforming them.

The Prisons and Terrorism report examines the policies and approaches of 10 European countries. It finds that, throughout Europe the extremist offender population has changed profoundly over the past decade. There are now more inmates convicted of terrorism‑related offences than at any point since the turn of the millennium, with inmates having more varied backgrounds, including more women and a rapidly growing prisoner population from the far right.

The ICSR also states that they are serving a wider range of sentences, many of them relatively short‑term. Combined, these three developments mean that managing extremist offenders is even more urgent – and more challenging – issue.

There are an estimated 1,405 individuals held in custody for terrorism-related offences across the 10 countries surveyed. When including those who are monitored for signs of their radicalisation, this increases to 3,027. The report finds that 54 per cent of the inmates monitored for signs of their extremism entered prison as what can be regarded as ‘regular’ criminals, meaning not because of terrorism-related offences.

Almost half of these inmates (549) are in France. Most of the remainder are in Spain (329), Germany (at least 292), Britain (238), and Belgium (136). Even countries with low absolute numbers, such as Sweden (53), the Netherlands (36), Norway (34) and Denmark (19), are dealing with more extremist offenders than in previous years. Of that, only the Netherlands pursues a policy of ‘concentrating’ their terrorist inmates, whilst Spain has extremists in isolation.

While full and permanent isolation is illegal, prison services across Europe have experimented with different regimes and it has become increasingly popular to have a mixed approach, which involves concentrating or separating the most dangerous inmates while dispersing the remainder.

Jihadis remain the most numerous of offences, accounting for 83 per cent of all extremist offenders who have been classified by their ideology. Supporters of the far right make up almost seven per cent of categorised offenders.

The report highlights a new development of terrorist attacks within prisons, of which there have been six known cases in the ten European countries surveyed since 2015. Attacks typically target prison officers, and most have been carried out by inmates with a violent past. Over the same period, there have been 22 prison‑related plots.

Nearly all the European countries surveyed have, in recent years, considered rehabilitation programmes for extremists. Most schemes follow the same basic principles: they begin with a risk assessment, are individually tailored and involve a variety of interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mentoring and structured dialogue tools. They all recognise that disengagement takes time and will not always be successful. However, there are also significant differences, especially in relation to: whether they are compulsory; the role of mentors; post‑release arrangements; the emphasis on ideology; and evaluation.

The ICSR recommends prisons: avoid overcrowding and understaffing; develop expertise and train staff; share information; evaluate risk assessment tools and determine what ‘success’ looks like; assess and adapt prison regimes; link up prison and probation; and pay attention to emerging challenges.

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