Radicalization of U.S. Prisoners


Project Details


This project (formerly: Correctional Response to Terrorism: Organizational Change and Strategies) involved the systematic exploration of the connections between imprisonment and terrorist recruitment through interviews of corrections officials, as well as intelligence officers working within those correctional agencies. Particular attention was paid to assessing (1) the extent and social dynamics of extremist ideologies among prisoners, and (2) correctional agencies' strategies for controlling such ideologies. Useem and Clayton conducted structured interviews with corrections officials in states around the country. During these structured interviews, Useem and Clayton collected comparative data on the perceived presence (or absence) of radical ideologies among inmates, on how facilities have attempted to manage relationships between oppositional groups in the prisons, on whether these methods have been viewed as effective and according to what measures, and how each facility's strategies in this area have evolved.

Primary Findings:

The level of prisoner radicalization in the United States is modest. The reasons for this are threefold: order and stability in U.S. prisons has been achieved during the buildup period; prison officials have successfully implemented efforts to counter the "importation" of radicalism; and correctional leadership has infused anti-radicalization into their agencies. In addition, researchers found that correctional practice and the radical threat co-evolve over time. A case study of a prison-based terrorist effort found that radicalization of inmates is not an inevitable outcome of prison conditions, but may be addressed and overcome, although never fully. Greater vigilance to detect radicalization is needed, especially among line staff, while centralization of oversight aware of potential radicalization is one mechanism that may lower the risk of actual radicalization.


The research project, conducted during the calendar years 2006-2008, involved interviews in nine state departments of corrections and one municipal jail system. A total of 27 prisons were visited, all either medium- or high-security prisons for men. In each jurisdiction (with one exception), the researchers interviewed prison officials in the central office, prison officials in each prison facility, and inmates in each prison facility visited. The exception (the municipal jail system) did not involve interviews of inmates. In total, the researchers interviewed 200 prison officials (at both the central office and at prisons sites) and 270 inmates.


Project Period: