Updated: Jul 21
The increasing number and diversity of offenders convicted in Europe for crimes associated with violent extremism crimes as well as the growing concern about their risk of recidivism upon release presents a host of distinctive challenges for prison systems. These include gathering intelligence, strengthening inter-agency cooperation, assessing risks, and developing rehabilitation and reintegration plans.
To meet them, countries have generally responded by strengthening the capacities of their prison and probation staff. Through training programmes on preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE), professionals at penitentiary institutions are expected to acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they need to engage efficiently with extremists and inmates at risk of radicalisation, and to work cooperatively and transparently with a range of relevant actors inside and outside penitentiary institutions. However, despite intensive efforts to create a qualified, experienced and coordinated prison and probation workforce, European countries have made uneven progress towards this goal.
How are prison staff in Europe being equipped to cope with violent extremism? And what factors help to understand the current gaps? The EU-financed EUTEx project, in which the author is currently engaged in, aims to contribute to a better training of workers who interact directly with terrorist and violent extremist offenders (VEOs). Drawing on information gathered by the author in interviews and exchanges with policymakers, front-line practitioners and researchers, this article takes stock of the situation in the 10 European countries where extremism is currently most prevalent (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and France). Country information is provided in an aggregate manner.
What are the main deficits in training for prison and probation staff?
A key pillar in national strategies against violent extremism across Europe, training programmes on P/CVE for prison and probation staff have flourished and multiplied in recent years. Their objectives, contents, depth and recipients differ from country to country, which has led to significant national differences:
Training goals: The most basic learning objective that training programmes seek to fulfill is to build a knowledge base about violent extremism among prison staff. In general, staff receive background information on the current and historical context of violent extremist movements, the characteristics of radicalized individuals or the causes and individual processes of radicalisation. Another skill in which prison staff are widely trained in Europe is the detection of problematic signs of radicalisation in ordinary prisoners. Strikingly, a minority of the countries abovementioned devote a significant part of their training curricula to the rehabilitation and reintegration of extremist prisoners, including content related to motivational interviewing and sentence planning, for example.
Ideologies addressed: Across Europe, prison staff are trained to manage prisoners linked to jihadist organizations such as Al Qaeda or Daesh. However, only a few countries also provide their staff with knowledge about other extremist movements, whether extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing or anarchism. Considerations like historical circumstances and the perceived risk associated with each type of violent extremist movement are key.
Size of trained staff: It is difficult to estimate the proportion of European prison staff who have been trained on radicalisation and violent extremism, as many national prison systems do not collect or share this data. However, the very design of the training provision in each country suggests that there are large differences in access to training, and consequently in the number of staff qualified to address this challenge in prisons. While some countries offer online courses on P/CVE or have included mandatory content on these topics as part of the initial training for new staff joining the prison system, in others training is based on intermittent and ad hoc initiatives (often funded by EU research and innovation programmes).
Why progress in P/CVE training for prison staff has been uneven across Europe?
Insufficient learning objectives and uneven staff training ratios: these are two of the main deficits that European prison systems currently face in their response to the challenges of violent extremism. What explains this general situation and why are there such great contrasts between European countries?
The degree of development of the training on offer, as well as its characteristics, depend on several key aspects. At least three help to understand the current state:
The nature of the problem is key. The challenge posed by violent extremism in European prisons comes not only from prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses, but also from ordinary prisoners vulnerable to radicalization within prisons. Data collected by European experts reveal that, in most countries, the number of ordinary prisoners radicalized behind bars is equal or even higher than that of violent extremist offenders (see table below). By way of example, in France, the proportion of ordinary prisoners who have been radicalized in prison is 86% higher than that of individuals who entered prison after being convicted of terrorism; in Denmark, the former represents 120% more than the latter. This helps to understand why some European prison systems are more concerned with meeting the training needs arising from the management of inmates radicalized while serving their sentence and much less with addressing the needs arising from dealing with extremist offenders. This explains the emphasis of all training programs on radicalization awareness and recognition of signs of radicalization, but also in part the limited focus on rehabilitating and reintegrating extremist prisoners within the training curricula. While it could be argued that both groups of inmates need to be reintegrated, the intervention with extremist prisoners is much more intensive in addressing the risk factors and the radical ideology underlying the crimes they have committed. Beyond the fact that prisoners vulnerable to radicalisation appear be more numerous than extremist offenders, an important role is also played by the fact that prison professionals have different scope for action when carrying out tasks related to detection and rehabilitation. While they must apply risk and needs assessment tools across the board to all inmates who show indications of radicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes are only implemented with the (often few) inmates who voluntarily agree to participate in such interventions. Moreover, while validated and evaluated assessment tools exist at European level, and a considerable amount of theoretical and practical development is available for the training of professionals, rehabilitation and reintegration programmes are in an experimental phase in many countries, and their development is still based on a trial-and-error approach.
The levels of prevalence of violent radicalisation in prisons differ markedly across Europe. Data from the World Prison Brief on the total prison population and from the most comprehensive and recent report on prison management of violent extremism in Europe reveal that, although violent extremist offenders represent an average of 0.6% of the prison population in the 10 countries, there is a large difference between those with the highest proportion of prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses (they are 1.6% of all prisoners in Sweden and 1.5% in Belgium) and those with the lowest proportion (in Italy they account for 0.1% of the total, and in Greece and Spain, 0.2%.)
The level of prevalence of a phenomenon has a decisive impact in policy priorities and professionals’ incentives. As such, those countries that have a higher proportion of violent extremist offenders may find it more urgent to train their prison and probation staff in P/CVE. In addition, some European countries (e.g., France, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands) have experienced prison-related terrorist attacks, putting more direct pressure on their prison systems to address the risk of recidivism among these inmates. From another angle, first-line practitioners may perceive that other issues are more prevalent or have a higher incidence in prisons than violent extremism, which incentivises them to train in competences unrelated to the management of these inmates.
The conditions of each national prison system also vary greatly in terms of resources and capabilities. Three aspects which have a significant impact on the planning and delivery of training are the number of professionals working in prisons, the capacity of the facilities and the size of the general prison population. As the day-to-day running of a prison is very demanding in terms of human resources, it is difficult for prison administrators to allocate working hours to training without affecting the running of the centres or taking resources away from the management of daily activities. For this reason, understaffed and overcrowded prison systems find it more difficult to meet the training needs of their professionals. The following table shows the current status of the 10 prison systems in relation to these three key factors:
How to address the training gaps of prison and probation staff dealing with violent extremism?
In coping with the challenges posed by violent extremism, European prison systems have prioritized detection over rehabilitation. While the attention paid to preventing and assessing the radicalisation of ordinary prisoners is appropriate and judicious, the response to inmates who enter prison after receiving a conviction for terrorism requires a greater impetus at all levels (at the ministerial level, at the level of the general penitentiary administration, and at the level of the penitentiary centers themselves).
To reduce the risk of recidivism of violent extremist offenders and promote their rehabilitation and social reintegration, prison and probation professionals need to develop a wide range of competencies that involve prosocial modeling, cognitive restructuring, motivational interviewing and sentence planning, or more specific ones such as faith-based interventions. At the same time, prison professionals must be prepared to work with a diversity of extremist offenders, which requires a diversification of the ideologies addressed by current training programmes. In addition, access to specific training must be ensured to all professionals who require it. E-learning can also be used to address these objectives, since one of its advantages is that it maximizes the investment in training and facilitates access to it.
With the support of EU programmes for research and innovation, European countries can fill the gaps in their current P/CVE training offers, as these projects provide an invaluable opportunity to explore cooperation relationships with different national and international relevant actors. In this regard, various initiatives funded by the European Commission in the past have contributed to reducing national disparities in the development and delivery of P/CVE capacity-building programmes by establishing benchmarks towards which countries can converge. The EUTEx project seeks to broaden the EU's response to violent extremism by focusing on one of the most pressing needs in its prison systems: the disengagement and reintegration of extremist inmates.
Álvaro Vicente is analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Spain and has participated as a researcher in publicly and privately funded projects. He focuses on the management of jihadist extremism in Spanish prisons, the implementation of innovative trainings in prisons and the design of specialised training programmes for prison and probation staff.