The Hidden Epidemic: Organised Crime in Prisons and the Threat to Societal Safety

The Threat Within

Prisons are designed to be institutions of justice, rehabilitation, and public safety. Yet, we see how vulnerable they are to the activity of organised crime and extremist groups that compromise prison security and endanger the broader society. Often focusing on the symptoms of a bigger problem, the topic may not make headlines as frequently as other correctional challenges, but this silent epidemic demands our attention. 
As society grapples with ideology-based violence and with criminal networks that increasingly weave their webs behind bars, it is crucial to understand the significance of preventing and countering extremism and organised criminal activity within prison walls.
Violent extremism and the infiltration of organised crime within prisons threaten the very essence of correctional facilities. Instead of being places where offenders are rehabilitated and deterred from further crime, prisons often become training grounds for further criminal activity. 
Around the world, gangs and organised crime syndicates find fertile ground in prison populations, recruiting members, plotting crimes, and even managing operations on the outside.

Implications for Prison Security

Organised crime jeopardizes the safety of inmates and prison staff alike. Corrections officers face the daunting task of dealing not only with individual offenders but also with sophisticated networks that can mobilize collective power against perceived threats, be they rival groups or the prison system itself. 
Gang-related violence is frequently more severe and indiscriminate than other types of prison altercations. This poses a direct risk to those incarcerated, who might get caught in crossfires, and to prison staff, who are often outnumbered and vulnerable to threats and intimidation. 
Moreover, the presence of organised crime influences the prison economy. Contraband, from drugs to mobile phones, floods into prisons, exacerbating addiction issues, enabling illegal communication with external networks, and fuelling power dynamics within prison walls.

The Ripple Effect on Society

Organised crime in prisons does not just stay behind bars. These criminal groups often maintain or even strengthen their external operations from the inside, coordinating illicit activities, orchestrating hits, or running fraud schemes. This means that, paradoxically, imprisoning members of organized crime can sometimes empower these groups rather than weaken them. 
Without evidence-based rehabilitation and reinsertion policies, programs and interventions, focusing on specific needs and individual profiles, inmates released from environments where organised criminal activity is rampant are more likely to return to criminal activity, perpetuating a cycle of crime and recidivism. This not only undermines the rehabilitative goal of prisons but also poses a direct threat to public safety.

The Way Forward

The experience from countries that have successfully dealing with the phenomena show us that addressing the menace of organized crime and extremism in prisons requires a multi-faceted approach:
i) robust intelligence units to identify key players in organised crime, map their networks, and understand their modus operandi should be put in place; 
ii) dynamic security practices and the implementation of technologies such as secure and legal phone systems, cell phone jamming, intelligent surveillance cameras, and contraband detection can limit organised crime’s ability to operate; 
iii) investing in individual risk and needs assessment and in rehabilitation and education programs that address the root causes of crime and offer inmates tangible paths to a legal livelihood can decrease the allure of organised crime and extremist organisations; 
iv) collaborations between prison and probation institutions, local communities, and non-profits can help monitor and reintegrate exoffenders, reducing the risk of recidivism.

Where does your organisation stand in preventing and countering extremism and organised crime?

In this edition of the JUSTICE TRENDS Magazine, we bring you the lived experience of decision-makers and their views on how their agencies are embracing these fresh developments, but also the views of renowned experts. You will also read how different jurisdictions have adopted specific solutions and the advantages that these brought to incarcerated persons and staff.

The fight against extremism and organised crime in prisons is not just about safeguarding inmates, prison staff or correctional facilities. It is about ensuring the broader safety of society and affirming the principles of justice and rehabilitation that underpin the correctional system.

Ignoring the threat is not an option. Proactive, comprehensive strategies are essential to prevent our prisons from becoming hostages of crime.

Wish you inspiring readings.

Pedro das Neves

CEO IPS_Innovative Prison Systems

Director of the JUSTICE TRENDS Magazine 


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Prison Intelligence: preventing and fighting extremism and organised crime