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Isolating terrorists in jail hardens extremist beliefs, prisons study finds

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Segregating and isolating terrorism offenders in prisons only hardens their beliefs and makes rehabilitation more difficult, according to a 10-year study of jails in the Philippines.

The findings, published on Tuesday by Australian National University researcher Clarke Jones, raise questions about the approach taken in some Australian jails, particularly New South Wales’ Supermax, where terrorism offenders are shut off from the general prison population.

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The study tends to support a contrasting approach taken in Victoria, where terrorism offenders are integrated with others to “prevent extremist views being continually reinforced by like-minded prisoners”.

Jones and his Filipino colleague Raymund Narag spent a decade monitoring the impact of harsher prison environments – marked by isolation, reduced visitation and the curtailing of religious rights – on radicalised prisoners.

The study found segregation only tended to cement extremist beliefs. Instead, dispersing terrorism offenders among the general population led to the challenging of their belief systems, promoted better rehabilitation through access to prison programs and vocational education and did not lead to the spreading of radicalisation, as commonly assumed.

“When prisons become overcrowded or the conditions become extremely harsh, then there’s a greater chance of prison radicalisation and also less chance of rehabilitation,” Jones told Guardian Australia.

“So we need to be very careful on this current development of harsh conditions and segregation and isolation, because they are not conducive to rehabilitation.”

Jones’s study focused mainly on two prisons in the Philippines: the New Bilibid prison, which integrates terrorism offenders into the general population, and the Metro Manila district jail (MMDJ), which segregates such inmates. The last 12 to 18 months of the study incorporated a significant trend towards harsher conditions and vast overcrowding, largely as a result of the hardline approach of Rodrigo Duterte’s government. Under Duterte, prisoners have been increasingly shut off from their families and prohibited from praying in large groups, wearing religious dress and attending Arab and Islamic schools, Jones said.

“Since then we’ve seen a fairly drastic change to the attitudes, behaviour and health of the inmates,” he said.

Jones said his findings did not advocate prisons going “soft” on terrorism offenders, or placing particularly high-risk or dangerous offenders with others.

“What we’re suggesting in our book doesn’t meant that we want to give them comfy pillows and cushions and things like that,” he said. “We’ve got equal interest in making sure that we reduce terrorism and the likelihood of terrorism.

“We don’t want people coming out of prison and hurting others… we’re suggesting better ways to encourage rehabilitation, giving inmates something to do on a daily basis, keeping them occupied.”

The research is published in a book titled Inmate Radicalisation and Recruitment in Prisons.

Corrective Services NSW was contacted for comment.

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