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CJCCJ/Volume 65.1 (2023)

Think like a terrorist to combat terrorism and radicalization in prison

By William P. Sturgeon & Francesca Spina.
New York: Routledge & CRC Press. 2023.

Correctional administrators are managing increasingly complex internal and external environments as they are expected to deliver more responsive services to individuals admitted into their facilities who pose higher risks and suffer from a greater number of unmet needs than in the past. These expectations are occurring during an era of tight money, scrutiny by advocacy and oversight agencies, the aftereffects of a global pandemic, and a movement to defund the police and abolish prisons. It is within this context that William Sturgeon and Francesca Spina describe the threats posed by extremist populations in detained and sentenced correctional populations. They contend that membership in these groups has been increasing and although the threats posed by Islamist inmates are often at the forefront of our attention, justice systems are failing to recognize the emerging risks posed by other extremist groups including domestic terrorists.

Sturgeon and Spina point out that the failure of jail and prison administrators in the 1980s and 1990s to manage the expansion of security threat groups (STG) led to their proliferation throughout the United States. While acknowledging that extremist group members account for a very small proportion of the correctional population, they contend that failing to manage these individuals will result in their expansion; forcing corrections to “catch up” and respond rather than developing proactive and preventative interventions. Extremists pose a risk to institutional safety that can extend into the community. Whereas prison gangs are often comprised of criminals motivated by greed the members of extremist groups are driven by ideology and hard-core members will trade their lives to further their political agendas. The authors argue that recognizing and mitigating the risks these groups pose and reducing their ability to recruit and radicalize new members should be a focus of correctional administrators.

Sturgeon and Spina present their observations in 16 chapters that start by explaining the scope of terrorism, the characteristics of radicals, and the factors differentiating terrorist extremists and ordinary criminals. The authors describe the impact of extremist groups on correctional and public safety and explain how these groups recruit and radicalize new members. The authors then describe the programmatic responses to managing the threats these individuals pose to custodial facilities. A key focus of the book is that correctional administrators need to manage their internal resources and engage in partnerships with external agencies to prevent inmate radicalization and misconduct behind bars as well as crimes in the community.

Throughout the book Sturgeon and Spina emphasize the importance of the correctional personnel, from front-line officers to chaplains and Imams, in recognizing and responding to the risks posed by extremists. They argue that all staff require training on radicalization, deradicalization programs need to be developed, correctional personnel need to be aware of the content of the religious messages disseminated in their facilities (and the people delivering these messages), and the importance of collecting, analyzing, and sharing intelligence with law enforcement and other correctional agencies. Although many large correctional systems have made progress toward these goals, the personnel in detention facilities are often less aware of the challenges posed by extremists and are less prepared to respond to their misconduct. The authors draw our attention to the vulnerabilities of local jails to internal and external threats and offer strategies to reduce those threats.

The author’s contributions are distinctive as they draw upon Sturgeon’s five decades of experience as a correctional administrator and consultant who has worked throughout the globe. His observations are complimented by Spina’s contributions from the research literature. As a result, this book will appeal to correctional practitioners as the authors provide a roadmap for confronting extremist inmates within their facilities and managing them in community-based settings. Academic readers, on the other hand, will develop a better understanding of the importance of correctional security. Correctional researchers sometimes forget that successful rehabilitative interventions are built on a foundation of safety and well-being. Many of the steps security personnel take are nuanced and fall outside the expertise and experiences of most academics. Failing to understand these dynamics inhibits our understanding of why some interventions work while others are unsuccessful.

Awareness of terrorism, research on extremism and prison radicalization were popular after the 9/11 attacks, but this interest has waned since America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Terrorist groups have, however, remained active and there is an increase in the membership of domestic extremist groups. Sturgeon and Spina remind us that complacency is a threat to delivering effective correctional interventions, and the notion that “it can’t happen here” and “we have it under control” enable extremist groups to establish a greater foothold in correctional systems: what has happened in some European and Middle Eastern correctional systems.

The book is not without limitations. While pointing out that vulnerable inmates are at risk of joining STG, Sturgeon and Spina do not directly challenge the conditions of deprivation in many correctional systems. As correctional budgets have failed to keep with inflation and crowding, administrators are forced to ration everything from the quality and quantity of meals, physical and mental health care, facility upkeep, staff training, and access to rehabilitative opportunities and chaplaincy services. Reducing access to these needs erodes well-being and increases inmate vulnerability. As a result, unless conditions of confinement improve, a greater proportion of inmates will be at-risk of joining STG to increase their feelings of hope, belonging, and safety.

Altogether, Think like a terrorist to combat terrorism and radicalization in prison makes an important contribution to the correctional literature and will prove popular with correctional security and intelligence personnel. Academics interested in STG, radicalization, and inmate safety will enhance their understanding of creating safer correctional environments and developing research questions based on that knowledge. All readers will develop a better appreciation for taking proactive steps to reduce the threats extremists pose rather than responding to crises after they have occurred.


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