Paris Attacks Draw French Vow to Stop Radicalization in Prison

With two of the three Paris gunmen likely to have deepened their radical Islamic views in prison, France vowed to isolate extremist inmates from other criminals.

“We’re coming up with a massive plan for prisons,” Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said after she visited the prison of Fresnes in the southern suburbs of Paris yesterday. “We want to make sure the greater group of the prison population escapes the influence of these individuals.”

President Francois Hollande’s government is seeking to counter mounting criticism over intelligence and security lapses and questions over why it couldn’t prevent the worst attacks in the country in more than half a century. Three distinct yet coordinated attacks last week in the French capital claimed 17 lives before the three self-proclaimed Islamist gunmen were killed by the police.

The brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi stormed the offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in eastern Paris on Jan. 7, killing 12 people. On Jan. 8, Amedy Coulibaly killed a policewoman, taking hostages in a kosher grocery the following day. He killed four of the hostages before he was shot dead.

Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly had each done several years of jail time. Kouachi was in for terror-related crimes, while Coulibaly was jailed several times for criminal offenses and in 2010 for participating in a plot involving terrorism. French Justice Ministry spokesman Pierre Rance declined to give a detailed account of the men’s possible radicalization in prison.

About 60 percent of France’s 66,000 inmates are Muslim, either by religion or by “culture,” a parliamentary report in October said. Of them, about 1,400 are seen to have extremist tendencies, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on RMC Radio on Jan. 12.

Prison Conditions

Valls told lawmakers yesterday that improving the prison system is a “major priority.”

“It is important to carefully rethink prison conditions in order to avoid aggravating the spreading of the scourge of radical Islam,” the parliamentary report compiled by lawmaker Guillaume Larrive said.

France created a penitentiary intelligence unit in 2003, dubbed EMS-3, to monitor prisoners, including those with radical views. The 30-strong team will be expanded, Rance told reporters.

Prison authorities have started isolating some of the most “radical elements,” he said. Inmates considered to be “unredeemable” are often in full isolation, Rance said.

Taubira visited a cell yesterday in a special part of the prison, where a group of 23 highly radicalized inmates has been held since last year. It is nothing like the incarceration of prisoners by the U.S. after the Iraq war, Rance said.

‘Not Guantanamo’

“This isn’t Guantanamo,” Rance said, citing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The prison entrance has high ceilings painted in white, with wooden floors and light yellow bars. The supervisor at the entrance sits behind a bullet-proof window in front of a wall with all the keys of the prison.

Fresnes, built in the final years of the 19th century, is the second-largest prison in France, with male and female inmates. Its then-innovative architecture served as a model for Rikers Island in New York City. The prison’s buildings are listed among France’s cultural monuments. In 2010, the prison, with a capacity of 1,700, had 2,300 inmates.

Taubira promised more money, surveillance, intelligence and a greater organization of the prison system. She said prisons with sensitive inmates will have special scramblers to block any communications inside or outside the jail.

‘Best School’

France said in a statement yesterday that it has 152 inmates considered fully radicalized Islamists, including people from the 1995 terrorist attacks that roiled France and jihadists who have come back from Syria in the last few years. Eighty-seven of them are seen to be part of organized networks.

Radicalization doesn’t spread just between inmates and is sometimes introduced by Muslim chaplains visiting prisoners, Valls said. He said the state would recruit and professionalize them as it seeks to have control over what they preach.

France has 182 Muslim chaplains for its prisons. It started a training program last year with the Grand Mosque of Paris, the country’s biggest, to have more moderate chaplain in its prisons.

Cherif Kouachi and Coulibaly had each been under surveillance on and off. Surveillance for Kouachi started as early as 2004 and in 2010 for Coulibaly, police officials said.

Coulibaly had been an exemplary detainee, Rance said. While in prison, he was briefly punished for having a mobile phone. After that, he took classes in first aid and commerce.

The thug-turned-killer Coulibaly secretly taped a video during his prison time in 2008, which he sold to France Television for a report on the squalid conditions of the country’s overcrowded and badly maintained prisons.

“Prison is the f---ing best school for criminality,” he told Le Monde newspaper, which interviewed him about the video in 2008. “You pile up years of experience. When I came to prison, I thought I am going to stop all this. But how do you learn justice in injustice?”

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