Preventing radicalisation through adequate assessment and support during reintegration

Article

Margarida Damas & Sara Afonso

Radicalisation and the difficulties of post-prison adjustment

Modern societies often respond to crime with imprisonment. However, it is widely accepted that prison offers only a limited solution for criminal problems, considering that, in principle, all liberty-deprived individuals, except for a small percentage, will return to their communities (Cherney, 2021). As a result, when considering the impact and intervention of the criminal justice system, the transition from prison to community must be accounted for (Decker & Pyrooz, 2020).
 
This transition poses various challenges and obstacles for the formerly imprisoned person, who must navigate and adjust to a different world and identity to overcome resettlement difficulties (Damas, 2021). These challenges are heavily shaped by the prison experience and its potential build-up of grievances and criminal know-how, but also by the stigmatising weight criminal records hold, which can hinder positive and pro-social resettlement paths.
 
Indeed, often referred to as “schools of crime”, prisons are places where vulnerabilities, frustrations and grievances are further aggravated. 
 
This scenario, combined with the forced social isolation, consequential sense of personal crisis, and contact with criminal networks, can heighten susceptibility to extremist views and messages, regardless of the previous criminal conviction’s nature (Neumann, 2010). Such has been witnessed in recent years, since some of the most recent terror attacks on European soil have been conducted by individuals who have been recently released from prison (EUROPOL, 2021). The Vienna shooting in 2020, the London Bridge stabbing in 2019, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015 are some examples, as these were all perpetrated by individuals who had been further radicalised or radicalised during their time in prison, preparing and engaging in extremist violence shortly after their release.
 

Moreover, this transition is also challenging to the receiving environment, encompassing the individual’s family and overall community.

This reintegration requires a two-way effort aiming to ensure constructive and beneficial outcomes. Hence, the reintegration process requires an integrated and comprehensive reintroduction in the community, which should provide opportunities for the previously detained person to choose to live a law-abiding life and productively function in society (Morton & Silber, 2018). Therefore, the prison-exit transition should incorporate a reentry process followed by, ideally, a steady resettlement, which should lead to a stable reintegration (Walkenhorst, Baaken, Ruf, Leaman, and Korn, 2018).

Therefore, when considering the possibilities of radicalisation and engagement in extremism in a post-release setting, different possibilities emerge, as the volatility, challenges, and vulnerabilities that describe the prison-exit transition can increase the adherence to radical or extremist ideologies, especially when building on previous socio-political grievances aggravated within the prison walls. Nevertheless, the resettlement process, if positive and constructive, can also create the conditions to decrease the readiness to adhere to radical or extremist solutions, especially when met with tailored and comprehensive rehabilitative and reintegrative efforts. 

Consequently, the probability of adhering to radical or extremist ideologies, when framed as a reentry challenge, calls for close and grounded support, which should draw a continuum, beginning between walls and extending to community settings (Walkenhorst et al., 2018). However, to do so, there must be a clear understanding of this potential of continuity or change and its possible implications for the reintegration path, thus requiring a solid understanding of the transitioning individual and their social context (Decker & Pyrooz, 2020). To assist this work, there is a need for adequate tools to determine an individual’s readiness to adhere and/or engage with radical thinking and extremist attitudes, allowing to adjust and adapt the after-care support provided (Clemmow, Schumann, Slaman & Gill, 2020).

The need to assess and intervene: How to support and elicit change?

To better tailor interventions, clear and comprehensive assessments are needed. In fact, and similarly to other deviant phenomena, the propensity to adhere to radical thinking patterns and extremist actions can and should be thoroughly evaluated as an integral part of a broader preventive approach, thus allowing to adapt supportive efforts (Sarma, 2017).
 
When looking at the post-release setting (i.e., non-custodial and communitarian settings), a sensitive scenario emerges, as the assessment is to be carried out with individuals who have already completed their sentences, as well as potentially their formal involvement with the criminal justice system. Accordingly, and to mitigate the already felt socio-institutional exclusion, it is paramount to ensure that follow-up efforts are rooted in non-stigmatising approaches, avoiding positivist and profiling attitudes (Sian, 2017), this way cementing trustful relationships with the newly-released individuals.
 
As a result, an extra layer of attention and care is needed, avoiding linear and superficial interpretations of potential ‘red flags’, especially those observational in nature, which can add to the individualised stigma, building on the ‘ex-con’ label and transposing it to the community level, with the possibility of creating suspect communities (Vermeulen, 2014). In fact, and as Weert and Eijkam (2019) stated, to correctly assess the potential of radicalisation and extremism in post-release settings, a comprehensive understanding of the assessed individual is required, which entails going beyond simply checking for ‘red flags’ and risk factors, as these must be carefully interpreted and contextualised, in a thorough and individualised way (2019), having positive individual effects, safeguarding from prejudice, discrimination, stigma and, consequently, exclusion.
 

For such, acceptance, transparency, and legitimacy are required, calling for the deconstruction of heavily focused risk assessment procedures and securitised perspectives.

Hence, broader work is needed, going beyond observable potential risk signs of radicalisation, aiming to comprehend the transitioning individual and how the resettlement path is being shaped, perceived, and dealt with. Therefore, assessment procedures need to follow an individualised approach, in which the individual is holistically framed and, most importantly, respected as a free and deserving community member.

As a result, the focus must be shifted from assessing the risk of violent extremism, instead being placed on understanding the propensity of engagement in radical thinking and extremist behaviours.
By using the notion of vulnerability instead of risk, the focus is placed on an open and fluid process between the newly-released individual and their environment, with different possibilities but no certain outcome, in which the potential of adhering to radical thinking and engaging in extremist activities must be looked as a reentry vulnerability. By doing so, any notions of a rigid or inborn predisposition are pushed aside, mitigating the often negative perceptions associated with the notion of risk.

What and how to assess

As aforementioned, when looking at the potential of adhering to radical ideas and engaging in extremis activities in the post-release setting as a fluid and complex vulnerability, the assessment must extend beyond the individual, since the receiving environment, must also be taken into consideration (Soufan & Schoenfeld, 2016; Hafez & Mullins, 2015; Vermeulen, 2014). As a consequence, a thorough assessment requires the analysis of different dimensions and temporal moments, holistically understanding the individual as a social being with complex personal, social, symbolic, institutional, and environmental realities.
 
Therefore, individual, societal, and environmental/communitarian factors must be considered when assessing the vulnerability to radicalisation and extremism in the post-release setting, as these should be framed within the broader reintegration challenges (Reiter et al., 2021). 
 
Over such a complex background, further attention is needed, as all assessment efforts should be designed to avoid striping the individual of their sense of autonomy, liberty and agency, leaving them feeling powerless and discouraged. Such means that the vulnerable individual must be continuously included in the assessment process, helping them feel heard and validated, and ultimately enhancing their agency and reinforcing their voluntary commitment to secure a beneficial reintegration path (Cherney, 2021). 
 
By following such a comprehensive approach, further stigma and socio-structural categorisation are avoided, which, on the one hand, leaves greater room for the assessor to mobilise professional discretion and, on the other, acknowledges how formerly detained individuals are complex social beings who cannot be reduced to linear assessments and scorings (EPEX, n.d.). 
 

In fact, symbolic concerns must be held at the core of the assessment (Hanson, 2009), as the language used to communicate a potential propensity to adhere to radical ideas and extremist behaviours can have a clear repercussion on interventive and reintegrative outcomes.

The common practice of categorising risk as low, moderate, or high, without providing clear and specific guidance on how to mitigate it, can instead hinder intervention efforts (Hanson, 2009).

Accordingly, when working in a post-release setting, in which the focus should be placed on promoting reintegration and managing any challenge that comes along, assessment procedures must assist and inspire follow-up support measures, thus promoting a tailored intervention.

Hence, instead of relying on an overall score and a risk-centred result, it is important to identify and signal the specific dimensions which require intervention by assessing their relevance to the individual’s case management plan, customising the provided support to their unique needs.

The R2COM initiative: Deconstructing risk with grounded
tools and knowledge

It was with this background into consideration that the R2COM project- Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Prevention in the Community – was designed, and is now under implementation with the support of the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. 
 
Recognising the need to comprehensively understand vulnerabilities to radicalisation during the prison-exit transition as a key element to guide tailored interventive and reintegrative efforts, the R2COM project is now creating a vulnerabilities and potentialities assessment tool, using the Frontline Behavioural Observational Guidelines (FBOG) as a starting point. The new tool, the TV-RAT (Transitioning Vulnerabilities to Radicalisation Assessment Tool) answers civil society’s needs, equipping its professionals with a tailored and suited tool, analysing different levels of vulnerabilities to radicalisation as well as areas for intervention, requiring an individualised and non-stigmatising assessment process, in which the transitioning individual is pivotal its successful outcome. 
 
Hence, the R2COM project aims to foster and enhance the involvement of non-governmental organisations in P/CVE, mostly on the follow-up/ aftercare provision of newly released individuals. The initiative will pursue this by improving the competencies of NGOs professionals in the area with sustainable, tailor-made, and needs-oriented training programmes and materials.

References

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Margarida Damas

Margarida Damas joined IPS_Innovative Prison Systems as a consultant and researcher in 2021, being assigned to the Radicalisation, Violent Extremism and Organised Crime Portfolio, where she works on several projects, mostly focused on promoting communitarian integration and social development. Margarida holds a degree in Criminology from the University of Porto and a Master in Sociology, specialised in Human Rights from ISCTE University, having a special research interest in post-prison adjustment and social integration of socially excluded groups.

Sara Afonso

Sara Afonso is Head of Directory for Communitarian Inclusion and Social Development at IPS_Innovative Prison Systems, where she works in community-centred projects for the prevention of radicalisation, extremism, and adjacent phenomena. Sara holds a bachelor’s degree in Criminology from the University of Porto, and a master’s degree in Terrorism, International Crime and Global Security from Coventry University, with a focus on the topics of disengagement and deradicalisation, as well as the reintegration of former extremist or terrorist individuals into the community.

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