For the past three weeks, a jail on the outskirts of Paris has been conducting a controversial experiment among its 2,500 inmates. The management of Fresnes prison has isolated 20 prisoners, considered to be radical Islamists, in a separate "living unit." A source at the prison told AFP that the idea is to "prevent recruitment among prisoners."
The experiment started on October 15, but was only made public on Thursday, following several incidents at the jail. To protest the new measure, 12 of the isolated detainees refused to return to their cell after a walk on Friday and one prisoner assaulted a guard. AFP reported that a similar confrontation happened again on Sunday.
When contacted by VICE News, the prison management declined to comment. But a spokesperson for French justice minister Pierre Rancé told VICE News that the ministry was aware of the trial, adding that the idea for the trial had come from the prison director himself.
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"This experiment is part of a bigger review within the ministry to assess what the best possible solution is for managing those inmates who have been charged with terrorism," he explained. "The prison director at Fresnes is undertaking an experiment to see what happens in terms of conversions and security. We don't know yet if it will prove efficient. At the end of the year, we will have tangible results from which we will be able to draw information."
According to French newspaper Le Figaro, some of the prison guards have raised concerns over the new policy. Ahmed El Hoummass explained: "Their isolation is in fact a form of 'career development.' They will teach each other how to better practice radicalization. On top of that, the real leaders never show their face, they don't draw attention to themselves. It's the most vulnerable that get labeled extremists."
'The downside is that, by detaining them together, they can often develop wider and more dangerous networks, and there is a "contagion" effect.'
For Farhad Khosrokhavar, a research director at the EHESS social science school in Paris and author of a book on prison radicalization, said there is nothing inherently good or bad about this type of tactic. "It does neutralize a great many recruitment strategies," he told VICE News. "The downside is that, by detaining them together, they can often develop wider and more dangerous networks, and there is a 'contagion' effect."
Khosrokhavar also maintains that Fresnes prison is not an ideal site for the experiment. "Fresnes is not appropriate, because it is very cramped," he said. "Prisoners can hear each other. You need a bigger prison."
Prisoner radicalization has been a hot topic in France ever since a shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd, killing four. The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, had allegedly turned to radical Islam during a stint in prison. The debate was also inflamed more recently by French center-right politician Guillaume Larrivé's highly publicized remark that 60 percent of French prisoners are "religiously or culturally Muslim," a figure contested by Le Monde.
For French sociologist and author Olivier Bobineau, the Fresnes experiment does not provide a long-term answer to the problem of prison radicalization. He told VICE News: "The risk is that the prisoners become inward-looking and exclusive. The radicals are victims of three types of frustration: political and religious, economic, and the lack of social recognition. For those who radicalize, religion brings hope, equality, and self-esteem. Isolation is only a short- or medium-term measure. If you really want to tackle radicalization, you have to provide solutions to those three frustrations."
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