The Corner

Prisoner Radicalization, Gitmo, Terrorism, and Obama

The report that three of the four Newburgh, New York terror suspects were radicalized in prison should be an obvious caution to President Obama regarding his plan to close Guantánamo and possibly relocate the inmates to U.S. prisons.


The problem of prisoner radicalization has been a growing concern for federal and state prison authorities since 9/11. The president, no doubt, is well-aware of the national security implications of the problem. In fact, several months ago the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent a report to the White House noting the gravity of the matter.


The Commission found that inmates in U.S. prisons are susceptible to radical rhetoric from fellow inmates and religious volunteers (who provide religious services, materials, or instruction to inmates, capitalizing on prisoners’ disillusionment and alienation from society). Prisons that are fertile ground for street gangs are also promising recruitment venues for radicals.


The remote locations of many prisons should not be seen as providing any insulation from the effects of radicalization. Rather, inmate isolation exacerbates the problem by making it more difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with their families, communities, and qualified religious instructors — all of whom can provide buffers against radical entreaties.


The threat of prisoner radicalization to national security is significant enough that over the last few years prison authorities have taken a number of steps to limit the potential for radicalization. The steps include insuring that no inmate-led religious groups meet without staff supervision, installing electronic monitoring devices in prison chapels, inspecting the content of religious materials brought into the prisons, and scrutinizing religious volunteers and contractors.


In 2004, the Bureau of Prisons took the step of issuing a revised policy on religious practices that provides that prison officials shall refuse to authorize meetings of any religious groups whose doctrines, rituals, or practices espouse domestic and/or foreign terrorism, or advocate any form of violence. This wasn’t done as part of a Cheney-inspired plot to destroy civil liberties, but to stem a real and growing problem in our prison system.


The Gitmo detainees have the potential to be the rock stars of radicalization. Their “battlefield cred” easily trumps the “street cred” of the ordinary prison proselytizer. Placing them anywhere near U.S. prisoners in order to placate the base wouldn’t be the most responsible exercise of presidential authority.


The Commission recommended, among other things, that prison officials take national security into consideration — carefully, even-handedly, and without relying on ethnic or religious stereotypes — when reviewing all requests for religious accommodation. Yet even this simple recommendation was assailed by liberals on the Commission as “subverting prisoners’ religious freedoms with generalized, non-specific claims of national security.”


Let’s hope that the Obama administration doesn’t need the specificity of a bombed temple or downed military transport plane to reconsider its decision to close Gitmo.


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