THE ROLE OF VOCATIONAL TRAINING FOR VEOs
Dealing with violent extremist offenders (VEOs) – a group which includes terrorists and others considered at risk of engaging in violent extremism, in our context in a prison and probation setting – is a relatively new challenge for the countries of the Western Balkans. The acts of violent extremism in Albania include several criminal offenses that are defined by the Penal Code of the Republic of Albania, such as (i) Article 230 Acts of terrorist intention; (ii) Article 231 Recruitment of persons for committing acts with terrorist intentions or financing of terrorism; (iii) Article 232 Training to commit acts of terrorist intentions; (iv) Article 234 Manufacturing military weapons (terrorist organization); and (v) Article 265 Incitement of hatred or disputes (265/a - Involvement in military operations in a foreign state, Article 265/b - Organising the involvement in military operations in a foreign state and Article 265/c - Call for involvement in violent military operations in a foreign state).
The annual reports from the Albanian General Prosecution Office reveal that during the period 2015 – 2021, a total of 13 VEOs have been imprisoned in penitentiary institutions in Albania. Nine of those consisted of a ‘cell’ of two unauthorized imams and seven affiliates which was dismantled in 2015. They were sentenced to 7 to 18 years in prison for inciting hatred or disputes and for their role in coordinating and recruiting over 70 Albanian citizens (foreign terrorist fighters and their families) to join the war in Syria. According to the Albanian State Intelligence Service (SIS), VEOs continue to maintain a radical profile in the penitentiary system and are actively engaged in radicalization activities. SIS also fears that VEOs’ degree of radicalization may affect the security situation in the country after the completion of their sentences. As regards the Albanian citizens who joined the conflict in Syria, the country has been unable to repatriate men, but only 37 women and children, who were all placed in rehabilitation programs outside the penitentiary settings.
Why should we work on the reintegration of VEOs?
Apart from keeping the community safe from offenders, the penitentiary system has an important role to play in supporting the eventual integration of offenders back into society and thus facilitating their resistance process. It is almost impossible to keep people in custody after the end of their sentence in a legal system. After having “paid their debt to society” detainees are supposed to be able to live among their fellow citizens again. At the same time, releasing individuals deemed dangerous is not a good option considering the potential danger they might pose to society. Working on prisoners’ reintegration is hence a sustainable solution to that end, and should therefore be a key element in any strategy related to preventing and countering violent extremism.
Besides the lack of alternative solutions, working on VEO reintegration brings several benefits. As mentioned in the Council of Europe's Handbook for Prison and Probation Services regarding Radicalization and Violent Extremism, the strategy of relevant services should be the prevention of violent extremist offenders’ reoffending, the prevention of radicalization in both prison and probation settings and the establishment of a long-term preventative strategy within the criminal justice system. Against this backdrop, working on VEO reintegration can potentially impede further radicalization among their ranks and the radicalization of other offenders in the penitentiary setting.The latter is highlighted as an issue in Albanian prisons, however does not amount to the dimensions of the problems encountered in other European countries which are confronted with an unprecedented number of extremist and terrorist offenders. In an attempt to inhibit radicalization activities within the penitentiary system, the Albanian Ministry of Justice isolated one VEO by placing him under the “41 Bis”, which is a specific prison regime in High-Security Prisons that isolates certain individuals in prison, thus restricting their contact with others. The placement of the VEO under this regime backfired without achieving positive results. This ‘isolationist’ prison regime is not being used for VEOs anymore, as the costs of this regime outweigh the benefits, given that it leads to perceptions of unfairness not only with the VEOs themselves but also to the public outside the penitentiary setting, thus contributing to the VEOs “system of meaning” (a network of mental models that provides the lens through which supporters of violent extremists are compelled to perceive and judge the world) in Albania.
The main long-term benefit of working with VEOs is their potential to lower recidivism – which constitutes the continuation of, or return to, a previous pattern of criminal behavior – and help offenders’ safe transition to the community. Specifically, recidivism refers to new criminal activity by an individual after completing a prison sentence. Compared to the rate for the general criminal population, which in many countries surpasses 50 percent, the recidivism rate for terrorist offenders is substantially lower, ranging between 2 – 7 percent. This applies both to general re-offending, as well as to terrorism-related offending. Although those low figures may be a source of relief, they do not reveal the whole picture. This data in European countries does not provide comprehensive recidivism figures for all individuals who have been marked as extremists during their stay in prison, but only for those who are serving their sentence for terrorism-related offenses. Besides, it is not safe to assume that VEOs would not re-offend, and even if a single re-offence occurs, it can have a dangerous impact, especially if it materializes in a terrorist attack, such as with the London Bridge attack in 2019, or the Vienna attack in 2020. Thus, working on VEOs’ reintegration will potentially impede further radicalization in prisons, lower recidivism, and will ultimately make an important contribution to strengthening community resilience by transforming actors that cause vulnerability.
How should we work on the reintegration of VEOs?
As one of the main phases of their rehabilitation plan, the reintegration of VEOs back into society is a long and difficult process that requires multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approaches with a particular focus on the transition between prison and probation. The literature in this field indicates that developing VEOs’ skills through vocational training is important not only to minimize distress but also to potentially facilitate the transition period once the inmate is released. In the Albanian context, vocational trainings are the most welcomed programs by VEOs.
Vocational training, such as entrepreneurship programs within prisons, offer a realistic opportunity for reducing recidivism. Vocational training provides learners with essential skills enhancing their employability, supporting their personal development and encouraging active citizenship. These are important elements in the context of radicalization, considering that economic deprivation makes it difficult for individuals to stay connected with their society or to provide for their livelihood, which then contributes to grievances and a loss of hope. In areas with high unemployment and a lack of prospect, there is certainly a greater vulnerability to radicalization. As an Albanian imam described it, “the economic aspect is very important, in the sense that if someone has a job, that person has a normal system of living that does not allow room for radicalization.”
Considering that vocational training is an effective tool for employability, personal development, and active citizenship, it is important to capitalize on its potential for VEOs’ reintegration. Nevertheless, vocational training cannot be a stand-alone pillar, and it risks becoming useless if not adopted into the broader rehabilitation process of VEOs. Instead, a vocational training program can serve as an entry point where prison staff and exit workers establish personal relations with offenders and facilitate their engagement in the broader rehabilitation and reintegration process while conducting regular risk, needs, and reintegration assessments. For this to be feasible, prison staff and exit workers need to develop a wide range of competencies that involve prosocial modelling, cognitive restructuring, motivational interviewing and sentence planning – or more specific ones such as faith-based interventions.
Building resilient communities depends partly on the successful reintegration of VEOs. Although reintegration is a long and difficult process in which VEOs are usually reluctant to participate in, vocational training provides a promising entry point for practitioners to earn VEOs’ trust and encourage their rehabilitation and reintegration. This can only be achieved through the development of practitioners’ competencies; a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary framework with evidence-based, effective practices; a solid risk assessment; information-sharing; linking-up prison and probation at different stages of the same process; and continuous monitoring of the whole process. To this end, Albania is part of the EU-financed project EUTEx which seeks to address the aforementioned aspects by developing a European framework for the disengagement and reintegration of extremist offenders and radicalized individuals in prison. The project establishes this framework by building on European knowledge, skills and products, taking them further by summoning the best expertise in relevant fields, and implementing it Europe-wide. Projects like this are important to fill the gaps in the current rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, as they provide an opportunity to develop the capacities of prison and probation staff, enhance internal mechanisms and practices, and exchange practices at regional or international level.
Romario Shehu is a Project Coordinator and researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Albania and member of the team implementing the EUTEx project. His work centers on violent extremism, organized crime, and foreign policy. He holds an MSc in International Relations and a BA in Political Science and International Relation.