Prisons, terrorists, rehabilitation, and social justice

Saudi Arabia says 80 percent of its ‘rehabilitated’ terrorists have not returned to terror, the Washington Post reports: It’s often argued that the people who commit acts of terrorism are troubled and vulnerable individuals. In Saudi Arabia, the government takes that thinking further: In 2004, it set up a high profile “rehabilitation” system for terrorists which hoped to deradicalize them through religious education and psychological counseling.

The goal is for these people to reenter mainstream society. Sometimes, however, they do not. This week, Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, told reporters that some 12 percent of people who had been involved in the rehabilitation programs had relapsed and returned to activities related to terrorism, according to Arab News.

Turki said the country’s Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center is now looking into ways to lower that number, although the government still felt that the program was overall a success. “Without the program, thousands of those who were released would have been exploited by terrorist organizations,” he explained.

Saudi Arabia isn’t the first country to try and rehabilitate terrorists; Its program followed earlier versions implemented in Singapore and Yemen. However, its well-financed system soon earned the plaudits of the international community. In 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shook the hands of two former al-Qaeda members who were in the program, and the United States looked to it as a model for Iraq and Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]

The Post’s headline says, “Saudi Arabia says 12 percent of its ‘rehabilitated’ terrorists have returned to terror” — as though any amount of recidivism represents a failure.

But rather than impose an unrealistic standard of success for an endeavor such as this, the more relevant context is the fact that it has long been evident that prisons in the Middle East and the West have long functioned as the preeminent schools of terrorism.

Prisons have served not only as places inside which violent ideologies can be promoted, but the widespread use of torture has itself been an unwitting instrument of radicalization.

The conventional wisdom among war critics is that ISIS is a product of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, but that’s only partially true. The more important ideological component for ISIS is its hostility towards Shias.

Yet neither hating the Shia nor the American occupation provided the glue for the creation of a radical organization. This came from bringing the individuals who formed the core of ISIS into one place where their ideological drives could be translated into a carefully planned and structured enterprise. That place was unintentionally provided by the U.S. government in the form of Camp Bucca.

Viewed from this perspective, the Saudi effort is a success merely by virtue of the fact that it exists.

In contrast, America’s treatment of suspected terrorists, at Camp Bucca, Guantanamo, Bagram and at CIA-run “black sites” have had little discernible success other than through the unintended effect of promoting more terrorism. And this doesn’t merely represent America’s failure in counterterrorism but more broadly a failure in the U.S. approach to law enforcement where the primary purpose of incarceration is punishment rather than rehabilitation.

American prisons here and overseas are first and foremost places where men get thrown away. The fact that this country has the largest prison population in the world — over 2 million prisoners — and almost 3% of the population under correctional supervision, is a social failure of staggering proportions. And the fact that two-thirds of prisoners after being released go on to commit further offenses shows that the American system of justice is broken.

It is broken for a simple reason. It’s foundation is a baseless assertion: that punishment deters crime. Stupid politicians pander to stupid voters with their promises of being tough on crime.

It hasn’t worked.

As in so many other ways, the United States could learn a great deal from Scandinavia. Contrasting the two approaches to running prisons, Doran Larson writes:

the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside — a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers, who have an average life expectancy of 59.

This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime — if they report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public education.

Which is to say, it’s impossible to have an effective justice system without also building a society based on social justice.

While the Saudis merit some praise for attempting to rehabilitate terrorists, they nevertheless are indisputably proponents of a multiplicity of the worst forms of social injustice on the planet.

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