The overcrowded prisons of Europe are breeding terrorists

The inside turmoil comes out.
The inside turmoil comes out.
Image: Reuters/Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool
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Many of the perpetrators in the highest-profile jihadist terror attacks in Europe in recent years had one thing in common—a stint in one of the region’s prisons. And those prisons have something in common as well. The major attacks have been carried out by men radicalized while held in overcrowded systems.

Prisons in France and Belgium, which have cultivated some of the deadliest terrorists in recent years, are especially known for poor conditions and overcrowding, Leonid Bershidsky writes at Bloomberg. Anis Amri, who trove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market last year, served time in Italy, another country where prisons are filled to bursting. These western European states are home to some of the most overcrowded prisons in the European Union, according to new data.

It’s clear that prison provides a fertile environment for radicalization. Muslims in places like Belgium and France—disenfranchised, poor, isolated, and ostracized—make up a disproportionate share of those who are incarcerated (In France, Muslims are just 8% of the overall population and yet make up 60% of the prison population.) Disillusioned inmates in these overcrowded, rat-infested prisons are often drawn to powerful figures—sometimes convicted terrorists themselves—preaching extremism. They also become prey for a network of recruiters working within the walls.

EU governments recognize the danger. France announced last year it will build 33 new facilities to ease some of the overcrowding and will renovate others. A chunk of Belgium’s $44 million anti-radicalization budget will go to prison-prevention programs.

Imitating Germany, which also has a large Muslim prison population but has thus far avoided producing a participant in a major terrorist attack, both countries want to have more moderate imams serving as counselors for inmates. Another more controversial idea is to separate extremist inmates from the rest of the prison population—a solution that even France’s prison controller called “dangerous” since it risks radicalizing some even further.