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Prisons and Terrorism: Extremist Offender Management in 10 European Countries

Prisons and Terrorism: Extremist Offender Management in 10 European Countries
22nd July 2020 ICSR Team
In Publications, Reports

The full report can be accessed here. An overview of its findings can be found here.

Please read on for the Executive Summary.

About this Study

  • This report offers a wide‑ranging analysis of the role prisons can play in radicalising people – and in reforming them. Building on a 2010 study that used the same methodology, it examines the policies and approaches of 10 European countries, identifying trade‑offs and dilemmas but also principles and best practices that can help governments and policymakers spot new ideas and avoid costly and counterproductive mistakes.
  • It paints a picture of countries trying to grapple with a challenging – and rapidly changing – situation. Over the past decade, many European countries have had to deal with a significant increase and diversification of their extremist offender populations, raising systemic questions about prison regimes, risk assessments, probation schemes, and opportunities for rehabilitation and reintegration that had previously often been dealt with on a case‑by‑case basis.

The Extremist Offender Population

  • Throughout Europe, the extremist offender population has changed profoundly over the past decade:
    1) There are more inmates convicted of terrorism‑related offences than at any point since the turn of the millennium.
    2) They have more varied backgrounds – including more women and a rapidly growing prisoner population from the far right.
    3) 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 – an issue.

Planning and Plotting

  • A new development is the occurrence 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: for example, attacks that followed an inmate’s release; plots the perpetrators of which met in prison; or attempts to coerce authorities into releasing prisoners. Some 12 of these plots involved jihadists who were only recently released from prison.
  • Prison‑based recruitment remains an issue. As with ‘traditional’ prison gangs, extremists target vulnerable inmates such as those who are isolated or new to prison. Targeting often involves the offer of material benefits and ‘protection’.

Preventing Radicalisation and Recruitment

  • Although countries have intensified training efforts, they have also recognised that it is neither reasonable nor practical to expect all prison officers to have an up‑to‑date and sophisticated knowledge of extremist movements. This has led to the creation of centralised ‘Extremism Units’, which provide expertise and input where needed.
  • Extremism‑specific risk assessment tools are now used in a majority of the countries surveyed. Many are relatively new and still need to be thoroughly evaluated. Their accuracy also depends on the skills and experience of those who use them.
  • ‘False compliance’ seems to have become more widespread, especially among jihadist prisoners, though its true extent is unknown. This can be a major issue in relation to risk assessment and release arrangements.

Prison Regimes

  • There are three broad categories of regimes for convicted terrorists:
    1) Placing all extremists together (‘concentration’);
    2) Dispersing them among the regular criminal population (‘dispersal’);
    3) Isolating them from each other and the regular criminal population (‘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.
  • There is no single, perfect solution. The examples provided in this study make clear that every type of prison regime involves trade‑offs; what works for one kind of extremist prisoner population may not necessarily be effective for another. Prison services are, generally, flexible in their approach.

Promoting Reintegration and Rehabilitation

  • 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.
  • There are significant differences when it comes to the processes and procedures whereby extremist offenders are released and the (probation) arrangements they are subjected to once they return to society. Only a small number of countries have an integrated approach towards prison and probation.


  • The issues raised in this report should therefore prompt policymakers and practitioners to assess how to best respond to these phenomena. Our recommendations are:
    1) Avoid overcrowding and understaffing;
    2) Develop expertise and train staff;
    3) Share information;
    4) Evaluate risk assessment tools and determine what ‘success’ looks like;
    5) Assess and adapt prison regimes;
    6) Link up prison and probation;
    7) Pay attention to emerging challenges.
  • Although we recognise that spending money on prisons is unpopular, politicians, policymakers and the wider public need to understand that maintaining safe and orderly prisons are key investments in countering crime and terrorism. No clever piece of software or risk assessment tool can compensate for the absence of sufficient staff, space and basic resources.
  • Not least, governments must always treat extremist offenders fairly and with respect. Whatever the prison regime, its foundation should be professionalism, respect and core values, such as human rights and the rule of law.

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