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How correctional officers can thwart radicalization in prisons

Radicalization is a complex and widespread problem in prisons and early intervention is critical


By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Radical extremists aren’t just being groomed from the depths of the internet, they are being actively recruited, pumped with radical ideology and sent back into communities, all under the nose of law enforcement. “The prison system is absolutely an incubator for radicalization,” said Brig Barker.

When Barker started his 21-year FBI career as an agent in 1995, his first collateral assignment was as a correctional intelligence liaison, essentially interviewing inmates who were radicalized. “This was my first glimpse into that world,” he said. In 2015, towards the end of his FBI career, he volunteered once again to be part of the BOP/FBI’s Correctional Intelligence Initiative (CII) assessing radicalization in prisons.

Radical extremists aren’t just being groomed from the depths of the internet, they are being actively recruited, pumped with radical ideology and sent back into communities, all under the nose of law enforcement. (Photo/Pixabay)
Radical extremists aren’t just being groomed from the depths of the internet, they are being actively recruited, pumped with radical ideology and sent back into communities, all under the nose of law enforcement. (Photo/Pixabay)

“The problem of radicalization in prisons hasn’t been fixed or gone away – it’s actually become worse,” he reported.

Identifying Signs of Radicalization

Officers play an important role in identifying inmates who may be headed towards radicalization.

“Correctional officers have a lot of touch points to be able to gauge how radical inmates are,” said Barker.

For example, officers can review incoming and outgoing letters, identify printed material in cells, listen to phone calls, and cultivate inmate informants.

“The gap is educating officers about what exactly they should be looking for,” Barker said. “They want to be equipped, but there’s not a lot of training for them in this area.”

For example, officers need to know what literature is actually subtle radicalization propaganda. They also need to recognize some of the physical and behavioral signs that indicate someone has adopted an extreme religious view. Barker, who founded the company, Red Rock Global Security Group, teaches a 4-hour course, Identifying Radicalization in Prisons, which provides more in-depth information about signs and indicators of radicalization.

Identifying Propaganda

Those headed down the road toward radicalization often read propaganda written by terrorist leaders and scholars. Officers should be concerned if they see materials from historical scholars such as:

  • Sayed Qutb
  • Abdullah Azzam
  • Ibn Taymiyya
  • Ibn Abd Al Wahab
  • Abul Maududi

In addition, any materials below could also indicate radicalization:

  • Dabiq or Rumiyah magazines. These publications are well-produced, glossy propaganda publications that aim to recruit Jihadists. You can learn more about these magazines and safely read issues at the Clarion Project website.
  • Inspire. This publication is published by Al-Qaeda In the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and used to promote radical views.
  • Materials featuring the teachings of Salafi-Jihadism, which promotes strict adherence to Jihadisst doctrine.
  • “The Management of Savagery” by Abu Bakr Naji. This book has Jihadi rhetoric and is focused on justifying the use of violence. Learn more at the McKenzie Institute.

These resources provide aspiring terrorists with a poisonous and action-based ideology coupled with tangible training to carry out attacks. They include information on everything from how to identify local soft targets and building IEDs to how to recruit others in furtherance of building out networks.

Identifying Physical Signs and Behavior

There are several signs that may indicate radicalization (read more about Barker’s 10 Factors Indicating Radicalization).

Appearance: Has an inmate started growing out his beard, but not allowing his moustache to fall below his upper lip? Does he wear pants above his ankles? Does he have a scar on his forehead from contacting his head on the ground during prayers? While appearance alone doesn’t mean someone has been radicalized, it’s one potential element of radicalization and should be looked at in totality.

Behavior: Those who are heading towards radicalization are fixated on radical Jihadist theology. Is theology all he wants to talk about? Is he hyper-focused on the nuances of the teachings of some of the radical scholars mentioned above and appear to be following them literally? Does he unerringly attend religious services? Has he stopped sleeping on a bed and only sleeps on the floor? Such overzealous commitment may indicate radicalization.

Identify Recruitment Efforts, Conduct Ruse Interviews

Officers often have an opportunity to stop radicalization before it starts. New prisoners are always vulnerable and often looking to join a group, making them perfect targets for recruiters. Recruiters are often aggressive in building relationships with new inmates, trying to include them in activities or offering them protection.

“They draw others into their ideology slowly, often starting with an anti-authority theme, which is something almost everyone has in common within a facility,” said Barker.

Recruiters assess how smart and savvy a new inmate is. They want to know not only what that person is capable of doing for the group inside the facility, but more importantly what they can do when they leave. Officers should closely monitor new inmates and observe who has taken an interest in them.

If they suspect someone is being recruited, Barker suggests conducting a ruse interview to get more information. As part of a ruse interview, officers bring in an inmate for an unrelated topic, for example, an allegation that they stole something from the cafeteria. After a few initial questions about the alleged incident, the officer can depart from the fake allegation and start trying to cultivate an informant relationship with the inmate.

“This situation gets an officer before the inmate in an unintimidating way and allows them to build rapport,” said Barker. The key is to make the inmate comfortable enough to start talking. An officer can ask him how things are going in the facility, if he’s having problems with anyone, if he has access to necessary resources, who he’s made friends with, and other related questions.  

“There’s a whole template used in a ruse interview that allows officers to thread in information in a subtle way so an officer can quantify where that person is along the path to radicalization,” he said. If an officer determines the person is becoming dangerously radicalized, they can notify administrators and take further action.

Conduct Background Checks

A thorough background check should be done on all chaplains who visit the facility to provide religious services. “Many times these chaplains will volunteer to provide services and no one is vetting who’s walking into their facility,” he said. Administrators should check databases so they know exactly who they’re allowing in. If someone appears suspicious, administrators should coordinate with outside agencies.

Radicalization is a complex and widespread problem in prisons and early intervention is critical. “I’ve sat down with officers who tell me their prison is overrun by radicalization,” said Barker. “It can grow like a disease unless you put measures in place to prevent it from growing.”

Prison administrators must take radicalization seriously before the effects spill beyond prison confines and into our communities.


About the AuthorLeischen (Stelter) Kranick is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email IPSauthors@apus.edu.For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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