U.S. Prisons now Radical Extremism Hubs
Prison radicalization is one of the most pressing domestic threats the United States currently faces. This is not a new phenomenon. Kevin Lamar James, originally incarcerated in 1996 for gang-related armed robbery, recruited and planned a major domestic terror attack from his jail cell in California in the early 2000s. James was convicted of recruiting more than a dozen prisoners into his self-made terror group, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, and plotting to bomb several military bases, synagogues, and the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles.
At the time of his arrest, the FBI claimed that the plot was the “closest to actually occurring” since 9/11. Had his co-conspirators not been caught robbing a gas station to support their planned attacks, his plot would have likely been successful.
The James case illustrates the strong link between time spent in prison, the acquisition of radical worldviews, and subsequent acts of terrorism. Since most non-violent offenders will eventually be released, the threat lies in their ability to radicalize others while still incarcerated and commit acts of terrorism once released. Policy must break this lethal link. America needs to develop a strategy that includes increased monitoring in prisons and rehabilitation programs to stop our prisons from becoming hubs for radicalization.
The U.S. government needs a multi-pronged strategy to address this threat. First, create a centralized national database to compile prisoner information including visitors and their frequency, incoming and outgoing mail, recent behavior, library books checked out, any altercations with guards or other prisoners, declared religion, details of phone conversations, and physical characteristics. Second, improve prisoner living conditions, in order to reduce the likelihood of radicalization. Third, require mandatory training for all guards to identify signs of radicalization. Finally, require rehabilitation programs and mandatory weekly counseling by trained psychological professionals for inmates who, based on specific criteria, are deemed to be “at risk” of radicalization or already radicalized.
Most prisons already collect an immense amount of data on prisoners. However, there is very little standardization. Current databases are spread out amongst a variety of state and local agencies and sometimes even private companies. A standardized, national database will enable law enforcement to immediately identify radical prisoners and implement additional levels of security to prevent them from radicalizing other inmates.
But even that may not be enough. According to his prison guards and counselors, Kevin Lamar James did not raise any red flags during his incarceration and regularly participated in activities. His case underscores the need for increased observation and analysis of inmate behavior.
Critics claim that there is little evidence of prison radicalization linked to terror plots. They make the mistake of assuming radicalization does not exist because they do not see it – and that is part of the problem. There are no “red flags” or indicators because the data is not uniform and centralized. Most prison guards are not trained to look for radicalization and do not have a place to report it even if they do identify that radicalization has occurred. As a result, the public is largely unaware that prison radicalization exists. That’s exactly why a policy overhaul is needed.
We can better protect America from domestic violent extremism if we can clearly identify the moment when radicalization occurs. Intelligence and law enforcement officials can create a more comprehensive plan to help prevent future radicalizations from occurring. America must shine a bright light on the dark corners in our prisons.