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Plan to deradicalise 'at risk' NSW prisoners

Deradicalisation programs are being initiated inside NSW prisons to turn 'at risk' individuals away from violent extremism.

Programs “aimed at promoting moderation” among a small proportion of NSW inmates are now being “stepped up,” according to a corrective services spokesperson.

Such initiatives aim to avoid the kind of situation that arose after convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf escaped the country on his brother’s passport after being released from a NSW prison. Sharrouf later gained infamy by posting a picture on social media of his seven-year-old son holding a decapitated head.

NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin said at the ‘Beyond Punishment: Muslim experiences of the NSW correctional system'  forum in July this year that efforts to counter radicalisation must be collaborative with the Muslim community and academia.

“CSNSW has commenced regular consultative meetings with NSW Muslim community and Imam representatives to... contain radicalisation and (ascertain) how to engage with partner organisations to assist with the transition from custody to community,” a corrective services spokesperson said. 

As part of the new initiative in NSW, prison wardens are also being trained in courses on radicalisation and extremism.

High risk prisoners

NSW members of the Pendennis Network are serving sentences at Goulburn’s ‘Supermax’ for their foiled terrorist plot, which they were arrested for in 2005.

These convicted terrorists have an ‘AA’ prisoner rating, which deems them a threat to national security and imposes additional movement and association restrictions, as well as electronic surveillance.

Pendennis Network members at the jail include Sydney “puppet master”, Mohamed Ali Elomar, who is serving 21 years, and the Cheiko brothers, Khaled and Moustafa, who are serving 20 and 19-and-a-half years respectively.

Imam chaplaincy promotes pro-social values

Muslims comprise 3.3 per cent of the NSW population, but 9.3 per cent of the state’s prison population, according to the NSW Corrective Services 2013 Census. Only a small number of these prisoners are considered ‘at risk’ of violent extremism upon release.

The Muslim chaplaincy program inside NSW prisons is working with imams recommended by the Islamic Council of NSW and the Australian National Imams Council as advocating pro-social values, who are then criminally checked and screened, to engage prisoners and reinforce acceptable beliefs and values.

South of the border, the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) coordinated 700 chaplain visits to 13 prisons in 2011-12, according to the ICV annual report in 2012. This included the Community Integration Support Program (CISP), which provides lectures and visits from imams and social workers. 

"Extreme thinking is common inside prison – emotions of anger and fear - and (inmates) can have extreme ideas. There’s lots of time to imagine what’s going on, (and) they can become overwhelmed and radicalised."

– Muslim academic Gabriele Marranci, who has studied conversions inside UK jails

A ‘last resort’

Deradicalisation programs in prisons are necessary as a “last resort,” according to Greg Barton, of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University.

“A rapport is built between prisoners and selected imams...Once a degree of trust and respect is achieved, they work through their views,” Professor Barton said.

Prisoners involved in such programs may maintain “technically radical ideas, but if they’re no longer involved in violent groups, it’s an achievement....What’s the alternative? Do we do nothing?”

While initial results of Australian programs remained unclear, similar programs in Singapore and an ‘Exit’ program in Scandinavia had been successful, he said.

In Indonesia, “there has been no systematic program of deradicalisation,” according to Indonesian academic Noorhuda Ismail, founder of the Institute for International Peace Building and a PhD student in southeast Asian terrorism at Monash University.

“The Indonesian Government has done well to arrest 900-1,000 terrorists, but the problem is we don’t know what to do after,” Ismail said.

“Of the 400 (convicted terrorists) that have been released, there is a recidivism rate of at least 10 per cent - and they’re the only ones we know of.”

The Jakarta Bombings in July 2009 that killed seven people, including three Australians, were conducted by a terror cell that spent time inside the city’s Cipinang Prison; while recruiter Abdul Rauf, convicted for his part in the Bali Bomb, went on to fight in Syria upon his release, where he later died.

“There needs to be three realms (to deal with convicted terrorists)... prevention, detention and post-detention,” Ismail said.

Engaging with inmates helps researchers and governments understand both the dynamics of violent extremism and their networks, he said. “We can then prevent others going down the ‘dark path’.”

Inside the minds of ‘radical’ inmates

Muslim academic Gabriele Marranci, who has studied Muslim conversions inside UK jails, said there has been no real academic research into radicalisation inside the NSW Corrective Services system, largely due to academics receiving limited access to prisons.

Marranci said, “It is difficult to generalise... (but) the dynamics of radicalisation is similar (in Australia) after my initial research."

He said that the high incarceration rate of Australian Muslims is mirrored in the UK.

Those at risk of radicalisation were predominately in the 17-29 age bracket, he said, and most had rediscovered Islam while in prison.

“The majority inside (UK) prisons have little theological knowledge of Islam – they only know it from the environment of a prisoner... and Muslims inside jail are often part of gangs - they are not your standard mosque-goer.”

“They are under psychological stress and are often drug abusers. Extreme thinking is common inside prison – emotions of anger and fear - and (inmates) can have extreme ideas. There’s lots of time to imagine what’s going on, (and) they can become overwhelmed and radicalised,” Marranci said.

He said most attention should focus on avoiding them being radicalised on the outside, as that’s where the real threat lies.

Helena Onnudottir, who co-authored the 2013 paper, “Australian Aboriginal Muslims in Jail,” said there is a higher incidence of conversion among indigenous than non-indigenous in Australian prisons, “But there is no evidence of (Aboriginal radicalisation and) the associated fear-mongering (as reported in the media).”

NSW Corrective Services spokesperson said, “Discussions with community-based organisations about developing partnerships with CSNSW to improve reintegration outcomes have commenced."

The Point

NSW Corrective Services is pursuing a plan to deradicalise Muslims in NSW prisons deemed 'at risk' of violent extremism

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