Thursday, January 18, 2007
U.S. prisons could breed terrorists, report claims
My father is a retired corrections officer who worked inside a prison for more than 20 years. Most days he went to work without incident and he always tried to comfort us by saying that acts of violence behind bars are not nearly as common as most people think. But on one terrible day something happened that showed us just how dangerous his workplace could be. Without warning an inmate attacked him and left him badly beaten.

It took a long time for him to recover. But he eventually went back to work in the same prison, surrounded by the same inmates. Nothing like that ever happened again (thankfully), but my dad was never able to comfort us any more by pointing out how that attack was the exception for prison life and not the rule.

That traumatic time for my family was very much on my mind as I heard the loud clank of the heavy metal doors behind me at California's infamous Folsom Prison. We had come to ask questions about the potential for a new kind of violence and those new exceptions that could leave innocent people injured...or worse.

A special report from two major universities warned of a global trend of men going into prison as criminals and coming out transformed into religious and political radicals. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid is believed to have been influenced by a radical Imam while in a British prison. In the United States, California inmate Kevin James allegedly founded his own radical Islamic group and directed a failed terrorist plot, all from behind bars. (James pleaded innocent to charges of conspiracy to wage war against the U.S. government and other charges, and is awaiting trial.)

At Folsom, we found that there is indeed concern that today's overcrowded and understaffed prisons could be an incubator for terrorism. Some officials say it is the perfect environment for someone with radical ideas to stoke the flames of hatred and give rise to a wave of homegrown terrorists. Prison officials compare this "radicalization" of inmates to gang activity saying it is impossible to stop and difficult to manage.

Religious converts behind bars (and there are a lot of them) are said to be prime targets. And while converts of any religion could be at risk, the universities' report says those new to Islam could be more vulnerable than others. That's because prisons like Folsom don't always have a qualified, full-time chaplain to lead services and teach. This could give a motivated inmate the opportunity to spread his own radical ideas to a captive audience.

Imam Salem Mohamed, a prison chaplain, has to split his time between inmates at Folsom and one other prison. He is available to the prisoners for only five days every other week. In ten years, he says, he has only encountered a few inmates with radical ideas. The vast majority he says follows the call to prayer seeking peace, many trying to escape a life of violence. But the authors of this report say all it takes is one charismatic figure to take advantage of this vacuum and sow the seeds of jihad.

It's important to note that followers of Islam are a small minority in a large prison population. Those with radical religious ideas (of any faith) are believed to represent a much smaller minority than that. The odds that one of them might actually cause harm to innocents seems remote. And had it not been for my own family's experience...I might have found that comforting.
Posted By David Mattingly, CNN Correspondent: 6:04 PM ET
  20 Comments
Hi David,
I keep hearing about the small minority of extreme Muslims whether it is in your blog or on Christiane Amanpour's website for her report "War Within" this weekend. Either way, large or small, something is attracting people to the right wing of Muslim. Is it fear or is it just anger?

I am sorry about your father's experience as a prison guard. I guess a prison would be a great breeding ground for extremism especially since spiritual guidance is limited.

I guess this also says a lot out our prison system in the US.

Looking forward to your report.
Posted By Anonymous Liz, Milwaukee, Wisconsin : 6:47 PM ET
What a coincidence that most "major universities" are left-leaning institutions. The people there are very cunning. Somehow I sense that what they're really doing here is building up their movement to generally oppose prisons.

Let them do their study on how to keep these criminals too busy to scheme and plan behind closed doors. Let's start with hard labor and removing their access to the internet. Oh, no- that would be politically incorrect.

Personally, I find it remarkably easy to sleep at night knowing that convicted criminals are stuck in cells, well away from the communities and the victims they have terrorized.
Posted By Anonymous xtina - chicago IL : 6:55 PM ET
Prison horbours criminal, and if the system makes no attempt to correct these abnormal behaviors, the criminals will be release and will terriorise our society. They dont have to be foreign to cause havic in our society!
Posted By Anonymous Claude Calgary AB Canada : 7:12 PM ET
Hi David,
I think it's wise to watch carefully all the nooks and cranny's everywhere. Whether it's Folsom or anywhere else. Prison guards have an endless amount of danger to deal with everyday of the week, this is just one more nightmare to consider. I guess rose colored glasses are not going to help any of us, anymore. Take Care
Posted By Anonymous Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 7:18 PM ET
I think what is attracting people to the right wing of Islam is the thought that the left wing of America will support them. I totally agree that I would never feel safe with statistics again if my father had been a victim. But we have to ask ourselves; If they isolated the instigators of these radical views in prisons, would we support our gov. in doing so? The answer is no. I feel that we are in such a dangerous position in the war on terror and the world is watching. So much so that we can not afford to blink in a confrontation, whether it is on the state or national level.
Posted By Anonymous Cecilia, Houston Texas : 7:27 PM ET
I thought it was interesting that this blog post focusses entirely on Muslim militants, despite the fact that Christian and other "homegrown" terrorists have committed more terrorist acts in the country, and were mentioned (if briefly) in the report. Groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Aryan Nations have been recruiting in prisons for years.

Focussing exclusively on Muslim terrorists misses large groups of other terrorists who are also potential threats.
Posted By Anonymous Ian, Edmonton, Alberta : 7:31 PM ET
Considering we are supposed to be the "land of the free", there is something drastically wrong in the U.S. which currently has the largest documented prison population in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms. That is 2,193,798 as of 12/31/05.

With so many people incarcerated, even a small percentage of the prison population joining radical factions is cause for great concern.

Perhaps we should try to understand why our society is failing for so many people.
Posted By Anonymous Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 7:47 PM ET
Why are prisons overcrowded and under staffed? We should take a look at these questions.. I bet we'll find that a great deal of "criminals" in our prisons are of the pot heads and non-violent drug addicted types. Until we reassess our "War on drugs" we will continue to have over crowded and under staffed prisons.
We as a society do ourselves and the non-violent "criminal" an injustice when we place the hard core criminals with non-violent offenders in an environment where survival is the main motivator, not rehabilitation. Imagine what would happen if the monies spent every year on the "War on drugs" was used instead for education, treatment, and social awareness.. Prisons might become adequately managed, drug offenders might not ever have become real criminals. The possibilities are of a war that could really be won.
Mike O'Brian
Posted By Anonymous Mike O'Brian New Haven CT : 8:01 PM ET
Mr. O'Brian has a good point; what are potheads doing in jail when drug-smugglers are allowed to pursuit legal action against border police, as in the case of US Border Patrol Agents Compean and Ramos? No way should these two gentlemen be in jail.

Maybe we have to vote for more conservative judges who would not have ruled in favor of that drug smuggler.
Posted By Anonymous xtina - chicago IL : 8:18 PM ET
I think this, with all respect to your own experiences, is another example of fear mongering.

Terrorism is real, it can happen, and nothing we've done since 9/11 has changed the potential for another act of mass murder.

Our airports are no more safe, our ports no more inspected, and our utilities no more protected than prior to that event.

However this is not quite as bad as it seems. Actually, although under staffed, our intelligence organisations are pretty good at stopping the very rare, but very real possibility of terrorism.

Contrary to popular belief, most of their analysis is bang on the money. They didn't get Iraq wrong - our government chose to ignore the majority of opinion that concluded it was unlikely Iraq was ever a threat to our country.

So while I wouldn't say that certain possibilities don't exist, and if you want to be paranoid you could monitor the internet activities of every American, read their mail, tap their international phone calls, and probably get overwhelmed with a lot of useless information - surely it would be better if we started concentrating on places that actually do harbor large numbers of people angry at America.

That is, spy less on Americans and more on countries that do present real threats - leaving regular law enforcement to monitor and catch the occasional extremist we self produce.
Posted By Anonymous Andrew Bright, Anchorage, AK : 8:27 PM ET
At some point, the concept of reforming a criminal to be a useful member of society ended and the thought of prison as purely punitive became the norm.

A young, impressionable inner city youth arrested for assault or robbery or some other crime is sent to a prison housing hardened criminals. The crime does not mean this person stays there forever. When this person leaves prison, are they "reformed"? Are they going to just feel sorry for what they have done and not commit a crime again? Or perhaps they have become a better criminal and more "radical"?

Think of your own social circles - we attend church and join community groups so we can be better people. We are influenced and encouraged by those around us towards a set of values and principles.

Take the otherside - if you were someone who wants to recruit more terrorists (or any other extremist movement such as white supremists) where would you find the ideal recruting ground?

How would you prevent any extremist (communists, muslim radical, christian radical, jewish radical, racist) from this? We catch these extremists and we...send them to prison! Hence, the deck is stacked against the non-extremist criminal - the more successful we are at capturing extremists, the more likely they will turn a larger proportion of the prison population to their ways.

Simple - have a way to have a positive influence and teach people the values and reward them for being a better person. Surround someone who is distrought, disenfranchised, and angry with people who are pillars of society, contributors, and altruistic.

Too bad those who are pillars of society and believe they are good people are only interested in locking these people up and throwing away the key.

What was it about holding the trespasses against others or was it forgive those who trespass against us? When it really counts, it is very tough to be a good Christian.
Posted By Anonymous Peter, West Sacramento, Ca : 8:33 PM ET
Dear David,

I'm sorry to hear that your family had to endure such a horrible incident. Your father was very courageous to return to work in that environment.

This situation is a perfect example of religious extremists and radicals using our "fredom of religion" against us. Unless the government wants to start defining what "legitimate" religion is or is not, they will have difficulty curtailing these types of groups. Unfortunately, once you begin to define what constitutes a religion it becomes a proverbial "slippery slope." I must admit, I find it difficult to believe that "Jailhouse Islam" can be considered a religion.

That said; if the threat truly exists, and it isn't adequately dealt with in its infancy, it may turn into an uncontrollable problem in the future. I agree that any prison, especially a large one, could become an "incubator of terrorism," only because many inmates enter the system already feeling disenfranchised and ripe for this type of indoctrination. Obviously overcrowding and the lack of qualified personnel contribute greatly to this problem.

No matter what, "odds" are of no consequence when something tragic happens to you or someone in your family.

I look forward to your report.

Take care,
Jo Ann
Posted By Anonymous Jo Ann Matese, North Royalton, Ohio : 8:45 PM ET
Prison is a place of punishment and is supposed to be unpleasant. Those that engage in activities while in prison that might be construed as having terroristic leanings can simply be shunted into a deeper, darker hole, making it even more unpleasant. It's their choice what they do with their time there and for those serving less than life sentences, whether or not they make it out alive. -USAPatriot
Posted By Anonymous Rod C. Venger - Colorado Springs, Colorado. : 9:01 PM ET
What is one thing each & everyone of our convicts has in commen? Each one has been or is a child. We, as Americans, have a big problem on our hands...we are NOT teaching our youth morals or responsiblity. Yes, our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, but so are our schools & colleges. So...lets do something about this. If we teach our youths to be responsible, well-educated adults, maybe fewer will turn to crime as a way of making a living. Then focus on REALLY rehabilating those who ARE in prison. The major problem of our prison systems are the recurring convicts, and if we help them in some way to straighten out their lives, guess what? Maybe there won't be so many recurrances.

Amber Copeland
Posted By Anonymous Amber Copeland Mannington, West Virginia : 9:50 PM ET
Yes I agree this is a serious problem. Inmates are locked up by U.S. government, but they should realize that they are also american citizens. I think that special privilege should be given to inmates that help alert prison athorities of growing terror cells in correction facilities. Thank you CNN for reporting this grave threat to society !
Posted By Anonymous Noah - East Bridgewater, Massachusetts : 12:39 AM ET
I agree that putting nonviolent criminals in with violent ones is just a recipe for disaster.

I had a friend that was running away and skipping school, etc. Back in 19--. He was eventually sent to a juvenile detention center, i.e. jail. This place had a reputation and I could not believe that he was sent there for these "minor" infractions. He came out much harder; stealing, drugs, eventually armed robbery. I can't beleive that there are not more centers like "Raw-Hide" for these kids and nonviolent criminals. We have a track record of making career criminals and now we're adding terrorist to their resumes.

If you want to punish non-violent criminals, make the punishment fit the crime. Rehab centers, community service, even school. Things that make a positive difference, not a negative one. I'm not saying it has to be a country club either! I'm saying that fitting inmate populations to like offenses, and giving them tools to be productive citizens makes more sense.
Posted By Anonymous Renae, Appleton, WI : 9:26 AM ET
I can almost guarantee that the people who are concocting these schemes behind bars would be doing worse things if they were out in society. Let's just be happy they're not on the streets. Afterall, what are our options?
Posted By Anonymous tim, malvern PA : 11:44 AM ET
David/AC360
Let's think about it. A criminal is separated from family, friends, and gang members into a secluded prison.

The only way to survive is to either become another type of offender in prison or to accept a theology that not only gives the prisoner a sense of kinship but also a sense of community or social network. Why wouldn't a prisoner be attracted to an extremist recruiter?

I understand that many faith-based organizations or churches do have prisoner ministries, including Muslims. The ability for the prisoner to reach out beyond the cell or prison may be critical in keeping them away from the extremist "collective".

It was unfortunate what happen to your father as a guard in prison. The desperation of prisoner life must be very unpredictable.

Thanks for educating viewers on this topic.
Posted By Anonymous Sharon D., Indianapolis, IN : 12:07 PM ET
I think anybody with a shred of common sense can see that our prison system, and our "criminal justice system", as a whole, have failed miserably. The war on drugs is definately the biggest problem plaquing our judicial system now. So many good points brought up here! You enter prison a pothead, and you are surrounded by murderers, child molesters, and religious fanatics. And of course, you are deeply resentful of the very government that put you there in the first place. Is it any wonder that these places breed new terrorists? Xtina, you really need to look at the bigger picture. Is a pothead any danger to you and your children? Potheads are lucky if they can find the motivation to get off the couch, let alone commit any crimes! Just lumping all felons into one massive category and saying its ok to lock them up and throw away the key is absurd at best. The people in prison that are remorseful for their crimes, that know they have done wrong, these people are not terrorist threats. And many are like that. But when you waste tax dollars, ruin lives and families, take away the right to vote, take away the dignity of a victim of the moronic war on drugs, deny them even the ability to receive student aid so they may someday make more of themselves than loser stoners, what in the world do you expect to happen?!?!?!?
Posted By Anonymous nathan, jc kansas : 4:34 PM ET
Once you decide be react for or against something you have the power to change a situation.
Posted By Anonymous israel, raleigh, nc : 12:34 PM ET
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