Prison radicalisation and deradicalisation in Australia

This post is an edited excerpt from ASPI’s Counterterrorism yearbook 2020. The full text of the yearbook, which includes notes and sources for each chapter, is available for download on ASPI’s website.

A number of people who have committed acts of terrorism were radicalised in prison. Examples include Richard Reid (the 2001 ‘shoe-bomber’), some individuals involved in the 2004 Madrid bombing, and the attackers who committed the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris in 2015. Studies of European and US jihadists have highlighted the relationship between prison and radicalisation. In Australia, one example is Guy Stains, who was radicalised in prison when serving a sentence for murder in New South Wales and left Australia after his release to fight for Islamic State. In 2017, he was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in Syria.

Across the ideological spectrum of Islamism and white supremacy, prisons have been the scene of radicalisation and recruitment into violent extremist groups. Research from the US indicates that post-prison violent extremism is related to whether offenders were radicalised in prison. Overseas research and inquiries into prison radicalisation in New South Wales have found that it’s driven by a number of factors, and that behaviours that can be interpreted by prison authorities as signs of radicalisation (such as a prisoner converting to Islam) don’t necessarily mean that an inmate presents a risk of radicalising to violent extremism.

Radicalised inmates comprise three groups of offenders: individuals subjected to a period of incarceration for terrorist offences; individuals who have exhibited extremist views, behaviours, or both, but haven’t committed terrorist offences; and individuals identified as at risk of radicalisation due to an association with known extremists. For brevity, I use the term ‘radicalised offender’ to refer to this cohort.

How governments and prison authorities deal with radicalised offenders has become an issue of concern. One response has been to introduce legislation and increase security regimes and restrictions targeting this cohort. Efforts have also focused on the development of deradicalisation and disengagement programs. In the literature, deradicalisation is understood as a change in beliefs, while disengagement is defined as a change in behaviours.

This chapter reviews counter-radicalisation efforts implemented by prison authorities in Australia and overseas and outlines some of the challenges in tackling inmate radicalisation. The evidence on how best to do so is still growing, and investment in evaluation to identify what works is needed.

Prison authorities in Australia and jurisdictions abroad have developed programs to tackle radicalisation. While the design varies in relation to how inmates are referred to participate in them, the programs generally try to generate disengagement and deradicalisation by focusing on one or more of the following: education, employment, lifestyle (sports, hobbies, personal health), psychological counselling and support, family support, and religious education and mentoring.

Prison-based programs have been implemented in countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. One well-publicised initiative is the Saudi Arabian Prevention, Rehabilitation and Aftercare strategy, which has been used as a model for other countries. A focus of the program is on religious re-education on Islam and dialogue between inmates and religious scholars. Education and vocational training are also provided, as well as support to family members, which includes regular family reunions with detainees.

Programs in countries such as Singapore and Indonesia have a similar focus in their content. One of the few interventions that’s been subject to a systematic evaluation is a Sri Lankan program targeting individuals who were members of the Tamil Tigers. Program participants are housed in rehabilitation centres and provided with a variety of courses, including art, yoga, vocational and educational training, training in emotional intelligence, and counselling. They’re encouraged to participate in different sports, and more hardcore Tamil Tiger members are separated from other participants. A series of evaluation studies found that program participants showed a decline in support for violent extremism.

Only two states in Australia currently have dedicated prison programs for radicalised inmates. The Victorian Community Integrated Support Program was established in 2010 to target inmates and parolees and was expanded in early 2015 to also target at-risk individuals in the community. In NSW, the proactive integrated support model (PRISM) intervention is delivered by Corrective Services NSW.

PRISM is a case-managed intervention that aims to address the psychological, social, theological and ideological needs of radicalised offenders. It targets individuals across the ideological spectrum, from far-right white supremacists to Islamists. The primary objective is to redirect clients away from extremism and help them to transition out of custody. This is achieved through individually tailored intervention plans. It’s a voluntary intervention that’s been operating since 2016 and is delivered by a team of psychologists in partnership with others, such as a religious support officer and service and program officers.

PRISM has been subjected to a series of evaluations, and the results indicate that it addresses a range of needs relevant to facilitating disengagement and assisting in reintegration. The engagement of family members is also a focus. The lessons from the evaluation of PRISM are that the consistency of engagement and participation matters a great deal in generating positive change among radicalised offenders and that clients will experience ‘ups and downs’ on their pathway to disengagement. Programs and policy responses need to be flexible to respond to such circumstances.

The problem of prison radicalisation and deradicalisation needs to be tackled in a holistic fashion, balancing the goals of security through incarceration with rehabilitation that focuses on reintegration and release. Governments, policymakers and prison administrators need to make judgements on a case-by-case basis because there’s no single pathway into or away from radicalisation and responses need to be tailored. A range of factors will influence the effectiveness of policy responses, including terrorist offenders’ experiences of incarceration, their perceptions of the legal framework relating to preventive detention, and the type and extent of post-release follow-up they receive.

Like many prisoners, convicted terrorists face challenges when released from prison, such as finding work, reuniting with family members, breaking from social affiliations and associates, and community rejection and stigmatisation. Research indicates that the recidivism of violent extremists is low and that extremist re-engagement is driven by a variety of factors. Community maintenance and follow-up are essential to ensure that radicalised offenders are successfully reintegrated. This should include, for example, assistance with finding work and ensuring that people aren’t re-engaging with radicalised associates or extremist content online.