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French Prisons Separate Inmates To Prevent Radicalization


Look back at the recent terror attacks in France and one trend becomes clear - many of the suspects had run-ins with the law, and most had been locked up at some point in their lives. French prisons, like those elsewhere in Europe, are trying to discourage future attacks by separating inmates who are radicalized from those who are not. Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar joins us now via Skype from Paris to talk more. Welcome to the program.

FARHAD KHOSROKHAVAR: Thank you very much indeed.

CORNISH: Now, I understand that France has been segregating inmates since 2014. And help us understand - what is the thinking behind this approach?

KHOSROKHAVAR: You know, they are fearful that once in prison, these radicalized people might influence the others. And in French prisons, the rate of people who are mentally disturbed is very high. It's around at least one-third of the inmates. And they can be influenced very easily. And that's one of the major reasons why they try to segregate them from the others, in order for them not to be able, first of all, influence the others, second, build up hidden networks, you know?

CORNISH: What are the downsides of this approach, of segregating the population like this?

KHOSROKHAVAR: There are problems related to the fact that they can, you know, build up their own networks. If you separate them from the others, that means that they are closely in touch with each other. The second point is that by doing this, you have some people who would be repentant. Once you put them with those hardcore jihadis, they will become like them. And that's another danger. And the third one is the fact that in prisons, part of the efficiency of the system is based on what might be called spies among the inmates. And in this case, it's very difficult to have spies because they would not cooperate with the authorities.

CORNISH: Once people are separated, what does the prison do then?

KHOSROKHAVAR: You know, in November - October, November 2014, one single prison segregated people before the law was enacted. And that was Fresnes, which is in the neighborhood of Paris. What they intend to do is to have a kind of program of de-radicalization. It is based on the fact that there should be programs integrating them, communication with them not only on daily life's issues but also on religious matters, which is very complicated in France because of the laicite.

Laicite means that religion is a private matter and the state government should not get involved in it. But in that case, they have to go beyond that because it is also a matter of ideology when it comes to religion and jihad. Somebody has to persuade at least part of these young people that Islam cannot be reduced to the holy war.

CORNISH: One thing I want to ask before I let you go is reaching out to a young person who is in the process of becoming an extremist - is prison too late, or is this really kind of a good stop-off point to catch people?

KHOSROKHAVAR: That's a very, very, you know, complicated question. In some cases, it's too late. But in many other cases, you know, when radicalization occurs within the prison, you can try to dissuade them. My guess is that you can at least save part of these young people through some de-radicalization procedures. And in that respect, there are some European countries like Denmark who are doing a good job, and even some Muslim countries. So it is possible to have a kind of social dialogue and put into question their faith in Islam exclusively in terms of holy war.

CORNISH: Sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

KHOSROKHAVAR: You're welcome.

CORNISH: Farhad Khosrokhavar is a sociologist and author of "Radicalization." An English translation of that book is forthcoming. He joined us via Skype from Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.