Preventing radicalisation in prisons

The terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Berlin were all carried out by men radicalised in jail. In Germany, politics and the judiciary are trying out new approaches to prevent inmates from becoming extremists. By Esther Felden and Matthias von Hein

By Esther Felden und Matthias von Hein

From his bird's eye perspective, the carved wooden Jesus on the ceiling is looking at panes of frosted glass shot through with decorative blue stripes. Behind them, you can just make out the blurred outline of bars at the window. If these weren't there, then you might forget altogether that you're in the church at Bochum prison. The prison is located in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine Westphalia (NRW). In NRW there are more radical Islamists than in any other part of the country.

Bochum prison church is large and bright. An open Bible has been placed on the wooden altar; there are candles on either side. Muslim prayers are also held here regularly now. The door opens and a stocky man is led in. He's in his mid-to-late 50s: he's wearing a black baseball cap, covering hair that's been tied back into a short thin ponytail, cargo pants and trainers. He greets with a firm handshake and looks his interviewer straight in the eye. The prisoner doesn't give his name. For the purposes of this story, we'll call him Batuhan.

One in every four prisoners in NRW is Muslim

Batuhan comes across as the model Muslim prisoner, conducting himself just as the German authorities would wish him to behave: he is remorseful, reflective and tolerant. Born in Turkey, he has lived in Germany since the age of four. He's been in detention since March 2014, sentenced for fraud. He explains that he used to work with cars and real estate. But that's all he's prepared to say.

Batuhan is one of some 15,000 prisoners currently detained in NRW. A quarter of these are Muslims. By the middle of last year, the state justice ministry told Deutsche Welle (DW) that 33 persons "from the Islamist spectrum" were serving sentences in North-Rhine Westphalian jails.

Described as potential threats, these individuals are spread across various facilities to prevent them from joining forces to form a radical cell. Bochum is among them. But DW is denied access to these men. All that is allowed as an interview with a man like Batuhan.

Nationality and religion, he says, play an important role for many prisoners in their everyday lives. He too only found God behind bars "because you don't have much else here apart from (your) gangs."

Threat identified – but not averted

Those in charge are currently gearing up for an increase in the number of radical Islamists in German prisons. Last year alone, federal prosecutors in Karlsruhe initiated 855 investigations into suspected radical Islamists.

Moreover: Following the military defeat of Islamic State (IS), research by public broadcaster WDR shows that more than 120 jihadists with connections to Germany are being held in Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. Others are being detained in Iraqi jails. Should they return, many of them will probably face criminal proceedings in Germany.

A critical moment, warns respected extremism expert Michael Kiefer. "Should cunning senior figures whose resolve is unbroken return, then of course they will start agitating in prison."

Imprisoned a criminal, freed a radical

Most of the terrorist acts in Europe were committed by people radicalised in prison. The Paris and Brussels attackers, for example. And Anis Amri, the man who rammed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market crowd in December 2016, killing 11 people.

More than half of the more than 5,000 jihadists who left western Europe for IS battle grounds have a criminal past. Many were gang members, drug dealers or thieves. These are the findings of a study published in 2018 by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London.

German prisons are trying to ensure that extremists don't missionise and that they don't have any contact with like-minded individuals. They are subjected to stricter surveillance in detention and separated from other prisoners. But they are not kept in complete isolation. The Bochum prisoner Batuhan thinks it's possible they could try to influence others. "It's easier to convince someone inside," he says, while insisting that this is not something he's experienced himself yet.

Easy prey for Islamists

Numan Ozer is convinced that prisons are the perfect breeding ground for extremist groups. The young lawyer with Turkish roots has been working for the Cologne-based initiative "180 Grad Wende" (180-Degree Turn) for seven years. The initiative is now partly funded by the government.

Friday prayers in Dusseldorf prison, North Rhine-Westphalia (photo: DW)
Der Islamwissenschaftler Mustafa Doymus fordert, auf jeden Gefangenen einzeln zu blicken. "Wenn man die individuellen Befindlichkeiten der Muslime und ihrer Kultur kennt, fällt es leichter, der Radikalisierung vorzubeugen."

Ozer has been a regular visitor to prisons in North-Rhine Westphalia since 2015. His initiative offers regular discussion groups for Muslim prisoners in four of the facilities. These focus on rules for harmonious co-existence, self-reflection and insight. "The prisoners are in a hole, emotionally at least," Ozer reports. This makes them easy prey for Islamists, who might tell them that the system is to blame for their predicament. Sometimes, says Ozer, crimes will be glorified in religious terms.

As radical Islamists see it, the West is waging war on Muslims. And in a state of war, the Koran permits the claiming of spoils. This argument is used to glorify income from theft, robbery or drug dealing as legitimate war booty and hold small-time criminals up as heroes. "This is an easy way for extremists to win over these young men," says Ozer.

A dangerous scenario: desperate, aggressive and isolated young men, often without any future prospects to speak of, encounter individuals in prison who present them with simple answers to all their questions.

Preventive measures from politics and the judiciary

The authorities have also recognised this: the state government of North-Rhine Westphalia is focussing primarily on prevention. Many NRW prisons have now appointed integration officers so that prisoners with a migrant background have their own point of contact.

In addition, the penal facilities are working closely together with scholars of Islam such as Mustafa Doymus and Mehmet Bilekli. Since 2016, on behalf of the justice ministry, both men have trained almost 3,000 of around 8,600 prison officers in NRW. The loss of freedom inevitably triggers personal crises among detainees that "make everyone a philosopher," says Doymus.

Some then asked themselves religious questions as well. The academics' work is focussed on the "sensitisation" of prison staff. So that they can help in the event of a crisis. And so that they might spot the signs of radicalisation as early as possible – for example, when a cell search turns up any suspicious literature or books. Or should detainees receive suspicious letters from outside.

Islam scholar Mustafa Doymus (photo: DW)
Islamwissenschaftler Mustafa Doymus berät die 36 Gefängnisse in Nordrhein-Westfalen, wenn es um Fragen zum radikalen Islamismus geht. In NRW sitzen gegenwärtig laut Landesjustizministerium 15.573 Menschen in Haft. Doymus zufolge sind darunter 3.500 Muslime.

Within the radical-Islamist milieu, there are networks that send letters and packages to prisoners in jail. An apparent gesture of kindness – but one ultimately aimed at winning detainees over to their ideology as new recruits.

The new concept of Muslim pastoral care

Islam scholar Bilekli is convinced that time in prison should be put to good use, not just for the vulnerable, but also for those inmates who have already been radicalised, to attain "a relenting, a questioning and a distancing". And he reminds us that the prisoners "will at some point be released into society again." This is why for a few years now, there has been a growing appreciation of the importance of Muslim pastoral care behind bars. "If people are given assistance and support in prison, this can have an immunising effect," extremism expert Michael Kiefer agrees.

There are 26 prison imams for the 36 prisons in North-Rhine Westphalia. They have all been subjected to security checks. But thus far, the Muslim clerics have not been able to make a living from their work behind bars. A prison imam is only allowed to work for 10 hours a week, at an hourly rate of 20 Euros. Until 2016, they weren't even paid.

By way of comparison: Protestant and Catholic pastors are paid by the state, work full-time and can focus entirely on their work in prisons. The two Christian churches devote a total of 86 prison pastors to jails in NRW.

The imams offer individual consultation time slots; Friday prayers take place every 14 days. The imam at the prison in the state capital of Dusseldorf openly admits that his messages won't reach those who have already been radicalised. His primary focus is also prevention.

The Bochum prisoner Batuhan takes up anything that promises to break the monotony of daily prison life. In the past, when he was a free man, religion played a very minor part in his life, he says. What mattered were hobbies, friends, family. But in prison, suddenly he found he had a whole lot of time to ruminate. Confined to just a few square metres with nothing but his own thoughts. Until his freedom in 2021.  His newly-discovered piety is something he will retain after prison, Batuhan is sure. "Now it's in, it's never going out," he says.

Esther Felden & Matthias von Hein

© Deutsche Welle 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon