- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2010

A former Watergate felon has the key to fighting terrorist recruitment in America’s prisons: Bring in more Christians.

The threat is real. Terrorist recruiting is growing at prisons worldwide, according to a new study titled “Prisons and Terrorism: Radicalization and De-radicalization in 15 Countries,” published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. The study notes that prisons have “played an enormous role in the narratives of every radical and militant movement in the modern period.”

The report found that Islamic radical groups such as al Qaeda are particularly active in prison recruitment and networking because they “see it as their duty to propagate their faith and political ideology (dawa).” To them, a prison “constitutes a potentially fruitful place for conversion and radicalization,” and they “consequently exploit whatever opportunities they are offered to approach other offenders and turn them into followers of the group.”

Prisons are “places of vulnerability” in which some inmates - usually not the most hardened criminals but first-time jailbirds and people with shorter criminal records - can fall prey to terrorist recruiting pitches. Two of the most important motivators that are “most likely to make inmates susceptible to new faith and belief systems - including extremist and militant interpretations of Islam” are the need for physical protection, which can be offered by any gang, and “the search for meaning and identity,” which radical Muslims seek especially to supply. This psychological, emotional or spiritual need, “which new prisoners experience in particularly intensive ways,” is the key to transforming a confused criminal into a committed killer for Allah.

Prison officials are aware of the problem and attempt various ways to deal with it, from physically separating members of extremist groups, putting ringleaders in solitary confinement and developing intelligence networks within the terror networks inside their prisons to keep an eye on them. Prisons, however, can be used more actively to reverse the tide of radicalization. The report notes that prisons “can play a positive role in tackling problems of radicalization and terrorism in society as a whole” and recommends that “prison services should be more ambitious in promoting positive influences inside prison, and develop more innovative approaches to facilitate prisoners’ transition back into mainstream society.”

Enter the former special counsel to former President Richard M. Nixon, Chuck Colson, who spent seven months in prison for obstruction of justice during the Watergate scandal. After his incarceration, Mr. Colson founded Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit organization seeking “the transformation of prisoners and their reconciliation to God, family and community through the power and truth of Jesus Christ.” To those prisoners seeking psychological, emotional or spiritual stability, Prison Fellowship provides a nonviolent, faith-based solution.

The program has been successful in reforming criminals generally. Prisoners in Texas who took part in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative sponsored by Prison Fellowship had an 8 percent recidivism rate, compared to a 55 percent rate in the general prisoner population. Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said the program is “just the right one when nothing else worked.”

Programs such as this, vigorously applied among prisoner populations most susceptible to terrorist recruitment, could short-circuit the mechanisms used by violent extremists and provide prisoners with sound emotional frameworks for productive citizenship. Critics might charge that using programs like Prison Fellowship as an active part of a counterterrorism strategy approaches an unconstitutional establishment of religion. But in this case, taking faith out of the equation is a form of unilateral disarmament against a foe that uses a religion-based ideology to sanctify violence committed by its adherents. If the choice is between prisons creating crusaders for Christ or Islamic jihadists, we say bring on the crusade.