Anders Breivik killed eight people by detonating a van bomb in Oslo, then shot and killed 69 participants of a political summer camp on the island of Utøya. It was the most devastating act of terrorism in Norway's history. Breivik is now Norway's highest profile terrorist, a constant reminder of the dark side of the Scandinavian dream. Breivik successfully challenged the Norwegian state on human rights grounds regarding his imprisonment. His accommodation comprises of three separate cells, exercise facilities, a computer, TV and a PlayStation: far more luxurious than the average student accommodation. The substance of Breivik's claim, however, rested upon his isolation. Prolonged solitary confinement is without question inhumane: human beings are social animals and prolonged isolation leads to psychological breakdown.
The Norwegian authorities claim that this move, exceptional within the country, was designed to prevent Breivik from interacting with fellow prisoners in a move designed to prevent him from spreading his vile right-wing extremist ideology to other prisoners. Norway is a society which prides itself on its tolerance and progressive values. The isolation of Breivik represents a crisis of faith in these values. Breivik has become a symbol for all Norway's doubts about the increasing diversity of our society, a patient zero of xenophobia: a role in which he rejoices.
The extent to which radicalised prisoners present a threat to others needs to be determined, and it's open for debate how far containment is a legitimate method to achieve this. What is clear is that we need to be concerned about the grooming of prisoners into radical movements, whether ultrareligious, or ultranationalist. Recently, a former inmate described Belmarsh maximum security prison as a 'jihadi training camp', showing that these fears are not misplaced. The UK has a growing number of young Muslims locked up in its prisons, of whom a tiny minority are radicalised. Just as prisons have long been described as Universities of Crime, this minority can turn them into Universities of Jihad in which young men evolve from being a petty criminal to a dangerous terrorist. British jihadis have seemingly been granted the freedom which Breivik sought for his own ideology - the ability to build terrorist networks and alliances within prisons. Like Breivik, some extremists actively seek to recruit and organise in these settings - from deliberately seeking to be sentenced to trying to gain entry through the system.
After two years of extensive interviews with Islamic extremists for my documentary Jihad, I consider the process of recruitment into extremism as being similar to grooming. Recruiters are experts building relationships that exploit lost souls. Prisoners living in hostile conditions with troubled histories, often with psychological and cognitive vulnerabilities, are easy targets for them. Radicalisation thrives upon despair. As a recent report has shown, despair flourishes in Britain's prisons. Rising levels of assaults and suicides indicate a dangerous decline in prisoner safety. Young men in search of a sense of identity may well prefer the glamour of being 'holy warrior' over the dreary realities of life as a prisoner or ex-con; young men dealing with guilt and shame may well prefer the idea that all their faults are due to 'the West' than their own failings; and young men whose lives have been chaotic may well appreciate the fantasy of order suggested by compliance to 'sharia.'
The Norwegian prison system, by contrast, has a strong focus upon rehabilitation rather than punishment, and has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. This approach is not just the best for reducing crime. A 15-country study suggests this rehabilitative ethos can also reduce the risks of radicalisation within prisons. Prisons can increase the resilience of young people vulnerable to extremist messaging through building positive programmes in order to reintegrate prisoners into society and to combat the despair of life in prison, and of lives gone astray. Prison radicalisation is not just a question of overcrowding or understaffing: it is a fundamental question about the purpose of prisons, whether they are intended to punish, to contain or to rehabilitate.
We cannot leave vulnerable young men open to the exploitation of extremists, both for our own security, and their own wellbeing. If we simply see prisons as warehouses, designed to confine, then we should not be surprised if extremists see them in a similar way - as places where they can collect damaged young men for their jihads, and their crusades, wholesale.Suggest a correction