Supporting the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners (VEP) and the Prevention of Radicalisation to Violence in Prison

Prisons as places of vulnerability

Prisons have always been known to be “places of vulnerability” constituting a variety of risk factors.

More recently, however, there is an increasing concern that, if left unchecked, prisons may serve as incubators for terrorism by constituting environments where violent extremism can thrive.

National counterparts of Tunisia has recognized that a comprehensive approach is needed to respond to this emerging challenge. Three workshops were organized in Tunisia in partnership with the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR) to advance the skills and knowledge of prison officers to manage violent extremist prisoners effectively and prevent radicalization to violence in prisons.

Specifically, the global initiative on preventing violent extremism in prisons and national project Tawassol supported field visits to three pilot prisons to discuss existing digitalization needs and the methodology of security audits. These tools could strengthen the capacity of prison administrations to address the manifestation of radicalization to violence and violent extremism in prison settings. In addition, a workshop on risks and needs assessment and dynamic security has preceded the prison visits led by international experts from Belgium and Pakistan. Given the complexity of women’s involvement in violent extremism, UNODC conducted an expert discussion on designing and implementing gender-responsive disengagement activities. Participants recognized that to be effective, disengagement, reintegration, and after-care interventions should be gender-sensitive and address varying experiences and the specific obstacles and challenges that women may face.

1. Digitalization (5-8 October 2021)

The first workshop on Digitalization co-organized with the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) focused on strengthening the digitalization capacity of the Tunisia Prison Administration. The use of digitalization technology in prisons was initiated back in 1994, and in the past few years, additional measures have been taken to enhance the process. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges and required concrete and urgent action to improve the digitalization capacity in prisons.

In light of these, Mr Hichem El Ouni, General Director of Regional Affairs at the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation, vowed to make the digitalization process its top priority and thus welcomed the initiative.

More specifically, Tunisia Prison Administration recognized the need to add a module on risks and needs assessment to the online prison management application to prevent radicalization to violence more effectively by institutionalizing individual risks and needs reviews and facilitating family visits.

Rita Raidy, UNODC Lebanon, presented the comparative experience of prison digitalization from different countries and underlined the importance of timely data collection and analysis. Mr Steven Van de Steene (Belgium) contributed to the discussion on the effect of digital technology on prisoner behaviour but highlighted the importance of a balanced approach between rehabilitation, efficiency and dynamic security. To review current practices and explore new opportunities, international experts conducted field visits to selected prisons in Siliana, Borj el Amri, and Mahdia.

2. Gender-responsive interventions (14 October 2021)

With the emergence of relevant research and policy frameworks and programmatic initiatives to prevent violent extremism and counter-terrorism, there has been an increased understanding of the need to address the gendered dimensions both in policy and practice.

As reaffirmed by Ms Meriem Rebbani, UNODC Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer in Tunisia: “Gender is essential to fully understand violent extremism in all its different forms in Tunisia; a gender-responsive approach will allow us to move beyond a simplified representation of women as either passive support or as a miracle cure to the root causes of violence”.

To this purpose, UNODC, in collaboration with UNDP, held a one-day workshop on understanding the role of gender in preventing violent extremism in Tunisia. International and local researchers and practitioners gathered to discuss specific challenges related to mainstreaming gender in preventing radicalization to violence in prisons. Participants emphasized the need to prepare a background paper on mainstreaming a gender perspective into the programmes and policies for future advocacy and outreach.

Ms Najet Ben Salah, from the Ministry of Justice, represented the Tunisian authorities and noted that “It is only by integrating a gender-responsive approach and respecting human rights standards that Tunisia will be able to provide a comprehensive response to violent extremism”.

3. Security Audit (20-22 October 2021)

The security audit workshop facilitated expert discussion on maintaining a proper balance between prisons’ physical, procedural, and dynamic security elements. In addition, international experts dwelled on the concept of dynamic security that requires prison officers to interact with prisoners positively and engage them in constructive activities.

As stated by former Prison Director, Mr Hans Meurisse (Belgium) «To implement dynamic security there must be a perfect balance between three elements: rehabilitation, efficiency and security”.

Mr Hichem el Ouni, General Director of Regional Affairs at CGPR reiterated that “COVID-19 had a profound impact on prisoners and their families well-being. By embedding a dynamic security approach, prison administrations provided telephones to help prisoners maintain contact with their families. We found out that this had positive effects on the prison environment and reduced tensions.”

Participants recognized many benefits of security audits in prisons. They agreed that this tool could identify deficiencies and areas of vulnerability in prison facilities, assess compliance with the national security policies and procedures, review the efficient and effective application of security resources and share good practices throughout the prison administration. In addition, participants developed recommendations for further enhancing digital technology in prisons and piloting a security audit checklist in three pilot prisons.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre (UNCCT), and the United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) work in partnership with the Ministry of Justice and the General Committee of Prisons and Rehabilitation (CGPR) of Tunisia to implement the national Tawassol project and global programme on preventing violent extremism in prisons. These initiatives are co-funded by the European Union, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).