Radicalization of U.S. prisoners


  • Bert Useem,

    1. Professor of sociology at Purdue University and author, with Anne M. Piehl, of Prison state: The challenge of mass incarceration.
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  • Obie Clayton

    1. Professor of sociology at Morehouse College, director of the College's Sponsored Research Program, and executive director of the Morehouse Research Institute.
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  • This project was funded by the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security, START, University of Maryland. The views expressed here are those of the authors and may not reflect those of the funding agencies. We thank Mark Hamm, Alan Krueger, Gary LaFree, Richard Legault, John Roberts, Marc Sageman, and Patricia Useem for their helpful comments.

Direct correspondence to Bert Useem, Department of Sociology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907 (e-mail: useem@purdue.edu); Obie Clayton, Department of Sociology, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA 30314 (e-mail: oclayton@morehouse.edu).


Research Summary

Concern has been expressed that prisoner radicalization poses a high probability threat to the safety of the United States. Although the threat of terrorist acts planned in prison is known to be above zero because of a nearly executed terrorist plot hatched in a state prison, the central finding of this research is that the actual probability is modest. The reasons for a modest probability are fourfold: Order and stability in U.S. prisons were achieved during the buildup period, prison officials successfully implemented efforts to counter the “importation” of radicalism, correctional leadership infused antiradicalization into their agencies, and inmates' low levels of education decreased the appeals of terrorism.

Policy Implications

The prison environment permits a great deal of information to be collected on the activities and, more difficult to detect, planned activities of inmates after they are released. This environment requires the attentive observation of staff, collection of information from inmates, and efforts at different levels of a correctional agency to assemble, collate, and assess information; much of it is likely to be false and some will be vital.