LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We now get a rare look inside a French prison. Officials in France say prisons have become incubators of extremism. Many of the homegrown terrorists who've launched attacks in places like Paris and Brussels recently were radicalized while incarcerated, often while serving jail terms that had nothing to do with terrorism at all. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm escorted into Fresnes, one of the largest prisons in Europe, about 20 miles south of Paris. Like most French prisons, Fresnes is overcrowded. There are often three prisoners to tiny cells built for one plus bed bugs and rats.
(SOUNDBITE OF CATCALLS)
BEARDSLEY: Inmates yell out curses and cat calls from behind their barred windows as I visit a small, empty sports-yard ensconced between the cellblocks. There are plastic bags and punctured soccer balls caught in the surrounding concertina wire. Inmates here yelled out this way in November 2015, refusing to honor a minute of silence for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Paris cafes and the Bataclan Concert Hall. Fresnes prison director Philippe Obligis says he began to see a radicalization problem well before those attacks.
PHILIPPE OBLIGIS: (Through interpreter) There were some radical Muslims who were putting huge pressure on regular Muslims to adopt a certain behavior like taking a shower with clothes on and not listening to music or watching TV.
BEARDSLEY: In 2014, Fresnes became the first French prison to separate suspected radicalized inmates from the general prison population. After the major terrorist attacks of 2015, some other prisons did the same thing. Some of those terrorists who had targeted journalists at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, shoppers at a kosher supermarket and concert-goers in Paris had gone into prison as regular criminals and come out radicalized.
The French government even put money into rehabilitation in the radicalized units, counseling and workshops for those deemed not too far gone. Businessman Pierre Botton went to jail in the 1990s and now runs an organization devoted to improving the lives of prisoners. He thinks radicals should be separated in different prisons entirely because they'll inevitably interact. Botton notes what happened when the only surviving terrorist from the Bataclan attacks, Salah Abdeslam arrived in a prison last year.
PIERRE BOTTON: When Salah Abdeslam arrives, they clap. You understand what I say? When he arrives into jail, they applaud.
BEARDSLEY: Botton says guys like Abdeslam are icons in Paris-region jails, where up to 70 percent of inmates identify as Muslim. He switches to French.
BOTTON: (Through interpreter) So when you put guys like this who represent a certain ideology in the heart of a prison surrounded by 4,000 inmates, there's a huge risk they'll contaminate the others.
BEARDSLEY: Yannis Warrach serves as an imam at another top-security prison in Normandy. He says having radicals alongside regular prisoners is a big problem. But grouping them all together is, too. For him, there are no easy answers. Prison is so brutal, inmates can only survive if they're part of a gang. Warrach sees how the radicals prey on newcomers.
YANNIS WARRACH: (Through interpreter) The ones who preach and proselytize will at first be nice to a detainee. They see his desperation. They'll befriend him, give them what he needs. Then they'll say it's destiny. They'll say that God has a mission for him. And, little by little, they brainwash him, telling him French society has rejected him. He can't get a job because of his Arab name, and he was always put in the worst class at school. The problem is this is often true.
BEARDSLEY: Warrach says another big problem is the prevalence in prison of hardline Salafist reading material that he says discourages Muslims from integrating in their own countries.
WARRACH: (Through interpreter) The prisoners I counsel have a lot of questions about Islam because they don't know much. I try to debunk this extremist literature and give them another narrative entirely.
BEARDSLEY: But Warrach says the radicals consider him an agent of the French state. So he has to meet secretly and hide his sessions with the inmates who so desperately want his help. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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