Elina Kervinen, Monika Peltola & Anniina Jokinen on Preventing Violent Radicalisation In Prisons

Published 11.4.2019

The European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, affiliated with the United Nations (HEUNI) is one of the partner countries in the international FAIR project, which was launched in 2017. Consequently, HEUNI has mapped out the views and training needs of the Finnish prison personnel as well as promising practices for the prevention of violent radicalisation and extremism in Finnish prisons.

The FAIR project

FAIR (Fighting Against Inmates’ Radicalisation) is a project funded by the European Union’s Justice Programme (2014–2020). It involves nine partner countries, who have quite varied experiences in the prevention of violent radicalisation and extremism. Some of the countries, like Finland and the Netherlands, are more acquainted with the corollary challenges around the phenomena, while others, like Lithuania and Slovenia, are relatively new to the topic. The partners comprise education experts, organisations and universities.

FAIR aims to prevent the violent radicalisation of inmates, promote disengagement and facilitate the reintegration into society. While the main focus of the project lies on religious radicalisation, political radicalism (such as extreme right-and-left-wing movements) has also been taken into account. In Finland, the primary goal is to raise awareness among the prison staff and to increase their competencies in order for them to be able to detect the signs of violent radicalisation and extremism as early on as possible. Now, the 2-year project is nearing half-time, and the latter half will be devoted to the development of training, led by the University of Malta.

HEUNI has looked into the level of awareness of the Finnish prison staffs by studying the available literature on the topic, interviewing various experts and conducting an online survey for prison workers. In the summer 2018, HEUNI discussed the results of the survey with its Finnish collaborators to establish a comprehensive overview. Some ideas were also brought up during the meetings, for example how to provide training for the prison personnel in collaboration with the Criminal Sanctions Agency.

The challenges in identifying radicalisation

As part of the FAIR project, a survey was made on the prevention of violent radicalisation and the corresponding training needs in prisons. The survey was emailed through the Criminal Sanctions Agency networks to all Finnish prisons, and it garnered a total of 67 responses from professionals working with prisoners, mainly prison guards and senior criminal sanctions officials. The results may not be statistically significant, but they shed light on the current perspectives at the coalface. In addition to the multiple choice and close-ended questions, the respondents also had the possibility to express their views more open-endedly. Many of them duly seized the opportunity, and so lots of textual material was collected as a result.

Based on the survey, it is evident that the prison personnel is motivated to work for the prevention of violent radicalisation and that there is a great demand for relevant information and training. Mere indicator lists are not, after all, in themselves sufficient in the identification process. In fact, 41% of the respondents were of the opinion that the indicators could have a detrimental effect by way of stigmatisation.

(The following extracts have been translated from the original Finnish responses.)

"All indicators can cause stigmatisation if they’re used thoughtlessly or unprofessionally and if you overshoot the mark."

"You should always pinpoint a reason for a certain indicator and only then make the assessment. Stigmatisation should be avoided."

The identification of radicalisation was deemed challenging because the outward appearance rarely gives it away. The lack of interaction between the staff and the inmates was seen as a hampering factor in the identification process.

"Even though we try to see and hear everything it still happens. The inmates do not talk with the staff regularly."

The respondents also thought that the risk of overreaction or misinterpretation is possible. An inmate can become radicalised in various ways, and so overinterpreting the indicators can lead one astray.

"And so you should be really careful with interpreting signs of radicalisation and they should be grounded in the kind of facts with which radicalisation could be scientifically proven."

A great need for rehabilitative measures in prisons

A good majority of the respondents (81%) was all for providing the inmates with programmes aimed at preventing radicalisation. The Criminal Sanctions Agency does not currently have any corresponding separate programme available. Both early intervention and non-violence were seen as important elements of rehabilitation. Other necessary aspects that were mentioned included the development of critical thinking, the reinforcement of religious and cultural awareness, tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.

"Skewed thinking should be dealt with during the prison sentence, like in the case of violent criminals."

"All activities that aim at questioning one’s way of thinking are useful for prisoners."

Peer pressure was seen to be an incentive for radicalisation, which is all the more reason for attitude-changing activity.

"Prisoners can be really vulnerable to the views, opinions and ideologies of their fellow inmates. The same thing can apply to radicalisation."

However, the respondents opined that the rehabilitation should be voluntary-based. Compulsion or coercion rarely leads to a positive outcome, because change requires self-motivation.

"If you want someone to change their way of thinking, that person usually has to have a will to do it."

"Coercion tends to incur resistance, which in turn reinforces the prior position."

The respondents felt that encouragement and supporting the inmate’s motivation are prerequisites for successful rehabilitation. The prison sentence should be seen as an opportunity to affect the inmates’ attitudes and to prevent radical thinking as well as any other disruptive behaviour.

Collecting promising practices

Many actors are actively engaged in identifying and preventing violent radicalisation and extremism in Finland. These activities were identified in the spring and summer 2018 both in the FAIR project online survey, the expert interviews and the group discussions. The interviews focused on delving deeper into the themes of the survey by collecting promising practices and expert views, especially with regard to rehabilitative programmes and training needs.

Three promising practices were identified in Finland: 1) A project by the Regional State Administrative Agency for Southern Finland was implemented in Vantaa prison in order to identify violent radicalisation and extremism; 2) The Radinet activities carried out by Vuolle Setlementti; and 3) The Aggredi work of HelsinkiMissio. The last two also provide services outside the prison walls. Thanks to these projects, the multidisciplinary co-operation has been on the increase – however, the true effect of the programmes has not been evaluated.

Even though Finland is still taking small steps in the development of exit practices, the topic is considered increasingly important. By further developing action models and practices, the risk factors and indicators can be identified more readily, which in turn facilitates early intervention. No dependable gauges have yet been developed for measuring the success of exit action; however, the development is currently in progress in many project cases. It is also worth remembering that the self-motivation of the inmate is a significant factor in terms of success. One of the most frequent challenges both in and out of prison is the language barrier, which usually obstructs communication in a considerable manner.

The final remarks

According to the FAIR report, the Finnish prison personnel need more information and practical skills in order to confront violent extremism. Early identification and the ability to intervene in the radicalisation process are key factors for ensuring effective disengagement. The earlier on the inmate’s risk of radicalisation is identified and, consequently, the dynamic prison security principles can be put to practice, the better results can be reasonably expected. Moreover, multidisciplinary co-operation should be further enhanced. The co-operation should be developed both inside prisons and beyond them, engaging the prison staff to co-operate with outside service providers.

Elina Kervinen is a researcher and Anniina Jokinen a senior programme officer at HEUNI. Monika Peltola is a Bachelor of Arts in forensic psychology, who was doing her traineeship at HEUNI in the spring 2018.

More information on the FAIR project can be found at http://fair-project.eu/en/