The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday that looks at terrorist recruitment inside the walls of American jails and prisons. The last time Rep. Peter King (R-NY) examined radicalization among Muslims, he generated a huge backlash from religious and civil rights groups.
But people who study prisons said the number of criminals who turn to extremism behind bars is small but worrisome. And they all point to the same case to open the conversation.
Six years ago, police swooped into a Los Angeles-area apartment building and arrested two men. Authorities said the men were on the verge of attacking synagogues and U.S. military recruiting stations. FBI and Justice Department sources call it the most serious domestic terrorist threat since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The leader, Kevin James, orchestrated the plot from inside California's New Folsom Prison, where he was locked up for armed robberies he committed as a member of the Crips gang.
Mark Hamm, who teaches criminology at Indiana State University, studied the case and interviewed dozens of inmates all over the country.
"This is fairly remarkable, that you can send somebody to a maximum security prison and while behind bars they can still wage a terrorist attack," Hamm says.
Right under the noses of California prison officials, James had directed a fellow inmate about to win parole to find people with clean records and an understated demeanor to help carry out a spectacular attack. James gave his colleagues a written blueprint to carry with them.
The men robbed several gas stations to get money to fund their plot. Then, authorities got lucky: One of the robbers dropped his cellphone, leading police to their apartment.
Gregory Saathoff, who directs the Critical Incident Analysis Group and studies prison radicalization at the University of Virginia, says the James case exposed a real vulnerability, especially in state facilities.
"Depending on budgets and priorities, there are some states that are much less able to devote resources, just in terms of understanding what's going on within their prisons," Saathoff says.
Since the James case, Saathoff adds, it has mostly been a good-news story for U.S. jails and prisons when it comes to violent extremism. But scholars are watching a few recent episodes with some concern.
Last month, an Michael Finton of Illinois, who converted to a radical form of Islam while locked up for another crime, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for trying to blow up a federal courthouse. Two other men from New York who spent time in prison and converted there have been charged with trying to attack synagogues.
Still, civil rights groups argue that there is not enough evidence to say prison extremism is a real problem, let alone hold a congressional hearing about it.
"This approach is just a recipe for sensationalizing and scaring people and turning neighbor against neighbor, and it promotes racial profiling and religious intolerance," says Laura Murphy, who leads the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
But King, who is leading the hearing, told Fox News on Monday that he is not scapegoating a whole religion.
"Prisoners in jail often are looking for a new alternative, and being converted to Islam, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that," King says. "In fact, in many cases it's ideal for prisoners. This is the religion they've been looking for."
In fact, prison authorities say Islam, the fastest-growing religion inside prison, has a positive effect on inmates' behavior. Experts who track extremism said they aren't talking about the kind of Islam that most people, including most prisoners, follow.
Instead, they're worried about a different version, often preached behind bars in maximum security state prisons by charismatic gang members with a lot of influence over other inmates.
"This religious foundation can be very esoteric and also very seductive," Hamm says. "It can be ... cherry picking versions of the holy Quran and putting them together in such a way that they seem to justify violence against infidels."
Hamm says prisons need to make sure there are more chaplains and imams on hand to provide legitimate religious advice. In the New Folsom Prison where Kevin James plotted, for instance, there was only one chaplain for every 2,500 inmates.
Hamm also called on corrections officials to enlist an unusual source of help — men serving life sentences, who can help steer inmates away from terrorism and extremism.
As for James, he's now living in a special federal prison unit in Terre Haute, Ind., called a Communications Management Unit, where counterterrorism authorities listen in on his every word.
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, people who study national security say the number of criminals who turn to extremism behind bars is small, but worrisome.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Mark Hamm, who teaches criminology at Indiana State University, studied the case.
MARK HAMM: I mean this is fairly remarkable, that you can send somebody off to a maximum security prison and while behind bars they can still wage a terrorist attack.
JOHNSON: Gregory Saathoff studies prison radicalization at the University of Virginia. He says the case exposed a vulnerability.
GREGORY SAATHOFF: Depending on budgets and priorities, there are some states that are much less able to devote resources, just in terms of understanding what's going on within their prisons.
JOHNSON: Laura Murphy leads the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
LAURA MURPHY: This approach is just a recipe for sensationalizing and scaring people and turning neighbor against neighbor and it promotes racial profiling and religious intolerance.
JOHNSON: But Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York who's leading the hearing, told Fox News he's not scapegoating a whole religion.
PETER KING: Prisoners in jail often are looking for a new alternative. And being converted to Islam, there's actually nothing wrong with that. In fact, in many cases it's ideal for prisoners. This is the religion they've been looking for.
JOHNSON: Again, Mark Hamm.
HAMM: And this religious foundation can be very esoteric and also very seductive. It can constitute sort of cherry-picking versions of the Holy Quran and putting them together in such a way that they seem to justify violence against infidels.
JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.