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France is intensifying its efforts to fight Islamic radicalization in the nation's prisons. It's an enormous problem. One of the brothers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris went from small-time criminal to violent jihadi after spending 20 months in the French prison system, and one of his suspected accomplices converted to Islam while he was behind bars. In the second of her series on radicalization in France, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston went to Paris to find out why violent extremism is rampant in French prisons.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: At a bar in the 19th arrondissement last week, everyone was gathered around a flat screen television to get the latest news about the terror attacks. It was midday and the bar was filled with men in polo shirts and coveralls, transfixed by what they were watching. I was there to see Laila Fathi, a Muslim activist who lives in the 19th, to talk about the radicalization of Muslims in prison.
LAILA FATHI: The U.S. problem that you have with high rates of Afro-Americans and Hispanic populating the prison seems to be like, now we have this high rate of Muslims living in the prison.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And the problems are similar?
TEMPLE-RASTON: The numbers tell part of the story. More than half the people behind bars in France are Muslim - more than half. The question of radicalization in French prisons has become so central because two of the men behind the terrorist attacks in Paris appear to have turned to violent jihad while incarcerated. Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who attacked the magazine offices and Amedy Coulibaly, the man suspected of shooting a policewoman and four hostages in a kosher supermarket, not only met in prison but officials confirm they were radicalized by an imam there. Several years ago inmates managed to smuggle an amateur video out of that prison to show just how bad it was.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
TEMPLE-RASTON: In this clip, an inmate is showing how to build illegal cook stoves in the cells. The stove is made of cardboard and coke cans and cooking oil. The video cuts to showers green with mildew and cells so small, a man can extend his arms and touch both walls.
FRANCESCO RAGAZZI: Prisons are a place in which radicalization happens for the very simple reasons that you have people in a confined space who have nothing else to do than to talk to one another.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Francesco Ragazzi is a professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. He says besides boredom there's also fear - fear of prison gangs.
RAGAZZI: People who initially might not be part of violent networks or networks related to jihad end up caught in these kinds of networks. There are quite simple gang logics that we find in many other types of settings in prisons in the U.S. or in Europe.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Radical Islamists can provide protection and help prisoners cope with incarceration by helping them either convert to Islam or rediscover their Muslim faith. Myriam Benraad is a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris and she says for new inmates who are frightened by the violence behind bars, Muslim prisoners can be role models.
MYRIAM BENRAAD: To the ones who find themselves in a state of crisis, they quickly appear as models of wisdom and so they very easily draw to them the others.
TEMPLE-RASTON: They do that by engaging young men primed to radicalized, people like Kouachi and Coulibaly, who toyed with radical Islam but who were more talkers than doers.
JEAN-LOUIS BRUGUIERE: I was very concerned about the situation in prison.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere sent Cherif Kouachi to prison in 2005. And he says that a high-profile terrorist indoctrinated Kouachi and others there.
BRUGUIERE: Yes, you know, the problems - we tried to separate them. When I was a chief, I ordered that separation, but it's not possible anymore.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Not possible because the prisons are overcrowded and inmates find ways to communicate illegally. One of the proposals now under consideration by the French government is to create a separate facility for Islamists who are trying to radicalize others.
Laila Fathi, at the bar back in the 19th arrondissement, not far from where the Kouachi brothers grew up, says rampant radicalization in prisons shouldn't surprise anyone.
FATHI: The prisoners are a very vulnerable population. How can we avoid that more Kouachi brothers would come out of the prison now?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Avoiding more extremists coming out of prisons is exactly what France is trying to figure out. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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