In a report published Tuesday, France's independent prison authority criticized a French government initiative to isolate radical Islamist inmates in order to prevent recruitment among prisoners. Prisons Controller Adeline Hazan called the initiative "potentially dangerous."
"There is a risk of exacerbation and a snowball effect," she said. "We risk creating time bombs."
The initiative was piloted in October 2014 in the Fresnes jail, where 20 inmates who are considered to be radical Islamists were isolated from other detainees in separate living units. Speaking to VICE News last November, Justice Ministry spokesman Pierre Rancé described the experiment as being "part of a bigger review within the ministry to assess what the best possible solution is for managing inmates that have been charged with terrorism."
On January 21, just weeks after the terror attacks that left 17 people dead in and around Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced plans to extend the scheme to four other prisons by the end of 2015.
Speaking to VICE News on Tuesday, Hazan remarked that there was no "miracle solution to the complex issue of radicalization" within prisons, and that "leaping to the conclusion that [radicalized] inmates should be kept in isolation was premature." She highlighted the danger of grouping together prisoners who "exhibit widely disparate levels of radicalization," warning that those with less extreme views risked being influenced by more radical inmates.
"When I visited the prison in Fresnes," she recalled, "I noticed that they had placed a young man who left for Syria on a whim [in a cell] with a completely radicalized leader."
The prisons controller — who described her job as making sure that the fundamental rights of prisoners are respected — criticized the evaluation system currently in place in French jails to detect and monitor radicalized inmates, arguing that is was outdated and unsuited to current radicalization trends. She called for increased resources for prison intelligence services.
Hazan also expressed concern over insufficient government control of the initiative, and warned of potential rights violations.
"As well as being potentially dangerous, the isolation of detainees in separate living units is not backed by any applicable legislation," she noted.
Overcrowding in France's prisons is an important factor in prison radicalization, Hazan added.
"Despite being aware of the overcrowding, the government failed to adequately assess the risks" of radicalization, she said. "We need to enforce the 2009 law that gives [inmates] the right to individual cells."
Hazan has suggested two alternative methods to combat the spread of jihadist ideology in prisons: formulating "de-radicalization programs" and relocating radicalized inmates throughout the country rather than concentrating them in prisons on the outskirts of Paris. Along the lines of de-radicalization, the government announced plans in April to open a center for young people returning to France after fighting alongside Islamic militants in conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq.
French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira's response to the reportis featured in the document as an appendix. Among her comments, Taubira explained that "efforts to disperse persons detained for acts of terror linked to radical Islam were quickly derailed" by the dramatic increase in the number of inmates charged with terrorism — from 90 to 190 between 2013 and 2015.
Taubira added that the government had reviewed its initiative since the drafting of the report, and that it was "open to proposals" on how to best monitor prison radicalization.