Criminologist Mark Hamm: "Islam does more good than harm behind bars." (Photo: Indiana State University)
Criminologist Mark Hamm: "Islam does more good than harm behind bars." (Photo: Indiana State University)

Expert: Radicalization Often Takes Root in Prison

UA alumnus Mark Hamm, a criminologist who has consulted with counterterrorism agencies, says the harsh conditions of confinement are to blame for radicalization, not religious doctrine.
April 1, 2016
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Mark Hamm's book "The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Terrorist Threat," published in 2013, provides insight into terrorist attacks that were led by men who had been radicalized behind bars. Other books by Hamm include "Terrorism as Crime: From Oklahoma City to Al-Qaeda and Beyond" and "In Bad Company: America's Terrorist Underground."

With their overcrowded conditions, extreme racial divisions and gang-influenced culture, American prisons are a breeding ground for radicalization — but that has little to do with religion, according to a University of Arizona alumnus who is an authority on terrorism and criminal subcultures.

Mark Hamm, a criminologist who has authored several books on the penal system and also has consulted with national and international counterterrorism agencies, drew a straight line from incarceration to radicalization in a 90-minute talk Thursday at the UA's College of Education, from which he is a graduate.

He said that although Americans may wish to blame Islam for the radicalization that often takes place behind barbed wire and high walls, the reality is something different.

"Islam does more good than harm behind bars," said Hamm, whose three-year study of U.S. prisons — notably California's Folsom State Prison — provided a revealing look at the seeds of radicalization. "The greatest thing it gives is the ability to conquer (idle) time."

Hamm, who once worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and is a professor at Indiana State University, acknowledged that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Western prisons and that 80 percent of all U.S. prison religious conversions are to Islam. Since 9/11, he said, a quarter of a million American inmates have converted to Islam.

Hamm also pointed to a recent New York Times story as evidence that prison radicalization is a serious problem. The story said two-thirds of 21 key players in the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks had been radicalized while incarcerated.

However, Hamm made a clear distinction between radicalization and conversion. Radicalization occurs only under specific conditions of confinement, he said. Most conversions happen through friendship and kinship networks, his study found, and often are the product of one-on-one proselytizing by inmates who are perceived as leaders.

"Most conversions have a positive effect on inmate behavior," he said.

He noted that radicalization is not limited to Islam but also includes white-supremacy groups and similarly fringe organizations.

Prisons in the U.S. took a turn for the worse in the late 1980s, according to Hamm, when the crack-cocaine epidemic resulted in a sharp increase in mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses. For a time in the 1990s, an average of one prison a week was built in the U.S., and California alone built 30. The notoriously grim prison at Folsom was described as "criminogenic" by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Prison is "a brutal, kill-or-be-killed environment, and that needs to change if something is to be done about radicalization," Hamm said. "There's no effort being made in prisons today to monitor radicalization — or even to rehabilitate inmates."

The U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay is a haven for radicalization, Hamm said. The prison once housed Said Ali al-Shihri, the late al-Qaida leader who was a mastermind of the 2008 attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

"There is no more dangerous prison in the Western Hemisphere," Hamm said of Guantanamo, which President Barack Obama pledged years ago to close but remains open. "Gitmo is such a stain on the U.S., an albatross. We don't know how many former Gitmo detainees are out there (in society)."

The radicalization problem isn't limited to American prisons, either.

Current al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was radicalized via torture in Egyptian prisons, Hamm said, and the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a militant Islamist, attempted to recruit fellow inmates in Jordan to help him overthrow that country's government. Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber" of 2001, was radicalized while imprisoned in the United Kingdom.