Prison and probation staff are key to effective counter radicalisation. One of the Council of Europe´s responses is the development, through the PC-CP, of a Handbook describing practical ways in which prison and probation staff can identify, assess and intervene with relevant individuals under their supervision.

By Vivian Geiran
Director, Irish Probation Service
President, Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP), Council of Europe

Violent extremism is a persistent blight on our society and threatens the fabric, as well as the safety, of our communities. By no means a new problem, terrorist violence has destroyed numerous lives and caused untold trauma in a range of European locations in recent times. All of us concerned with maintaining law and order, and promoting societal safety and justice, have a role and responsibility to do all we can to eliminate violent extremism. The phenomenon of radicalisation itself is a complex one and there are many contributory factors for its development in individuals. In addition, while many individuals may give us cause for concern in this regard, for various reasons and at different times, the number and proportion who progress to actually carry out violent extremist acts are relatively few. Nevertheless, while they may be relatively small in number, the impact of their actions is devastating and for this reason they have been described by one commentator as ‘the spectacular few’[1].

Given the seriousness of the issue of radicalisation to violent extremism, and in the context of several deadly attacks over the past year, the issue has been prioritised by the Council of Europe, in common with other European bodies. A number of those involved in recent terrorist attacks have been in prison and/or on probation prior to their murderous actions, and they may have been or become radicalised during their time in prison or under supervision in the community. Because of this, the Council of Europe, as part of its response, through the Committee on Crime Problems (CDPC), tasked the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) to explore this issue and draft appropriate Guidelines for prison and probation services in Council of Europe member states, to help them effectively deal with radicalisation in their respective spheres of influence.

While there has been much focus on prisons as sites where conditions lending themselves to radicalisation of prisoners often exist, there is a clear need to take into account the role of probation organisations, as well as prison administrations, in this issue. A number of individuals involved in terrorist attacks have indeed previously spent time in prison. Some of these have also spent time under probation supervision in the community. Others may never have been in prison but were on probation at some time. Either way, we must acknowledge the fact that both prison and community settings be recognised as significant potential sites where radicalisation to violent extremism can begin, or be exacerbated. Therefore, measures to address radicalisation need to be taken in both settings.

The Council of Europe’s response, developed through the PC-CP, has two main strands, incorporating the preparation of two separate documents: (a) a Guidelines document and (b) a Handbook for probation and prison services. The Guidelines were adopted by the Committee of Ministers on 2nd March this year, and sets out the scope, principles and high-level goals for prison and probation management in addressing radicalisation. The Handbook for prisons and probation management and staff, which will incorporate more detailed measures, is currently being completed by the PC-CP Working Group, with input from three external experts in the field. Prison and probation staff are key to effective responses to radicalisation and the Handbook currently being drafted will develop practical ways in which prison and probation staff can identify, assess and intervene with relevant individuals under their supervision. In light of the on-going urgency of the issues involved, the Council of Europe’s Committee on Crime Problems, at its most recent plenary meeting, last month, which I attended, and at which the latest draft of the Handbook was considered, has requested the PC-CP to accelerate its work on the Handbook, so that it will be completed this year.

I would urge all prison and probation administrations to familiarise themselves with, and take appropriate steps to implement in practice, the Guidelines and (in due course) the Handbook. As well as addressing the problem of radicalisation directly in both prison and probation settings, we must work to ensure maximum interagency co-operation among all relevant institutional and community based organisations, to be most effective. Much work is already being undertaken on this subject by European and other international bodies and networks, and it is advisable that bodies involved at international level, as well as those within their respective jurisdictions also co-operate in the development of appropriate and effective responses.

The Council of Europe Guidelines for prison and probation services regarding radicalisation and violent extremism, published in March 2016, are available on the following Council of Europe webpage:

Vivian Geiran

Director, Irish Probation Service

President, Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP), Council of Europe



[1] Hamm, M. S. (2013) The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Evolving Terrorist Threat, New York: New York University Press.

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