Those at the heart of the scheme have insisted the new facility will not be a ‘special prison’ but rather ‘a place for intensive counselling for ex-terrorists’. But given the stated aims include preventing the spread of radical views among general prison populations and easing pressure on overcrowded penitentiaries, the impetus for isolation appears to be broader than simply pre-parole preparation.
The underlying dilemma is one that a number of governments are currently pondering: is it better to segregate extremist prisoners or disperse them among the general inmate population?
The first conscious decision to disperse terrorist prisoners came in the United Kingdom in the 1970s, in response to the Irish Republican Army’s penitentiary power base within the notorious Maze Prison in Belfast. Today, unmanageable inmates — both extremists and otherwise — are routinely shifted between eight dispersal prisons in order to avoid the entrenchment of problems and the development of undesirable relationships.
Preventing the concentration of prisoners with similar extremist worldviews may mitigate the chance of ideologies becoming further internalised. Proponents also argue that interaction with group outsiders can promote social inclusion among extremists. Valuable intelligence may be collected from the close observation of these dynamics.
But there is an obvious problem associated with integrating persuasive radicals and naïve delinquents under the same roof. The unstructured nature of the global jihadist movement, and its combination of anti-establishment rhetoric with an ostensibly pious religious framework, means it is generally open to anyone. The global jihadist movement is potentially attractive to angry young criminals seeking both redemption and the protection of a prison gang.
Spain has recognised the danger of inmate recruitment. While the government maintains a dispersal policy for imprisoned ethno-nationalist Basque separatists, jihadi extremists are largely segregated from the general prison population. The UK is also revisiting the utility of dispersal. Is the strategic separation of imprisoned extremists a better option?
The United States houses the majority of its extremist prisoners in two relatively new maximum security facilities called Communication Management Units. As the name suggests, these specialised prisons allow for total control and surveillance of inmates’ interactions. Security is the absolute priority and the reportedly repressive environments are not ideally conducive to rehabilitation initiatives. Although the US approach does not involve total segregation of extremist prisoners, the two facilities are often referred to as ‘Guantanamo North’.
Obstacles to rehabilitation are a key problem with the segregation model. US Vice President Joe Biden once called the Guantanamo Bay prison complex ‘the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting terrorists around the world’. While other cases of extremist prisoners being segregated are not logically equivalent, memories of Guantanamo scandals and the Abu Ghraib atrocity mean that any remotely comparable facility risks being painted with the same brush.
France appears to be seeking to avoid this problem by creating designated wings for extremists in established prisons. Two were completed in January 2016 and the government plans to have five up and running by the end of March. The specialised wings will differ from the US model in that rehabilitation — or so-called de-radicalisation efforts — will be the focus, with dozens of counsellors and psychologists recruited to work towards positive change.
An interesting example of a mixed approach is Denmark. Instead of opting for outright segregation, the Danish authorities have decided to remove prisoners they believe are vulnerable to influence while maintaining interactions between extremists and inmates deemed resistant. Given the right conditions and context, this could well be a promising strategy.
So how do Indonesia’s proposed changes measure up?
Authorities in Indonesia are well aware of the dispersal–segregation dilemma. The head of the BNPT’s de-radicalisation division, Dr Irfan Idris, has been quoted in the media summarising the drawbacks of each approach. There have been reported cases of prisoners and even guards succumbing to the influence of charismatic extremists behind bars in Indonesia. Yet authorities are concerned that a segregation model would allow militants to close ranks, as witnessed in Belfast’s Maze Prison.
The specialised centre in Sentul was close to realisation in 2014, when a memorandum of understanding was signed between the BNPT and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to begin transferring prisoners. But a subsequent visit by the then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono scuppered the plans, as the former leader expressed apprehension about the facility’s proximity to the capital.
Yudhoyono also warned that the centre ‘must not be like Guantanamo’. The fact that proponents have claimed the current scheme merely amounts to a counselling facility for ‘ex-terrorists’ appears to be aimed at extenuating this type of attribution. The newly appointed head of the BNPT, Inspector General Tito Karnavian, has stated that prevention and rehabilitation are the agency’s primary functions.
If the Sentul plan goes ahead and is well managed, it could provide a long-awaited opportunity to establish a robust disengagement program in Indonesia, while avoiding the problem of general inmate radicalisation. The de-radicalisation facility needs to balance the internal challenge of preventing undesired unity among extremists and the external one of placating public perceptions. But the potential benefits outweigh the possible risks.
Cameron Sumpter is a Senior Analyst at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
This article was first published by RSIS.