01/12/2015 06:24 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT

Radicalization of prisoners discussed at Canadian roundtable

Canada's correctional service quietly hosted an international roundtable and symposium last month on how to deal with the radicalization of prison inmates, an alarming trend raising concern in France and around the world in the wake of last week's attacks in Paris.

Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), got approval from Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney to fly in participants from other parts of Canada and from the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Israel, France, Spain and the Netherlands at a cost of about $63,000, according to a briefing note obtained by CBC News through Access to Information.

"Violent extremist or radicalized offender populations may pose a threat to the safety and security of institutions and communities, necessitating an examination of evidence-based assessments, interventions and management practices for this group of offenders," the document reads.

CSC confirmed the three-day event took place Dec. 2-4, bringing together international experts who discussed ways to manage extremist offenders.

The issue of radicalization behind bars is on the global radar after revelations that two gunmen involved in last week’s terror attacks in France are believed to have been radicalized in prison.

French authorities are struggling to contain the threat from what is now considered fertile ground for extremism.

Cherif Kouachi, one of the brothers who massacred 12 people in the attack at the Charlie Hebdo weekly newspaper, came under the influence of Djamel Beghal, a known figure of French radical Islamism, while incarcerated at the Fleury-Merogis prison.

Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed a policewoman and four hostages before being shot and killed by police, had also came under Beghal's influence and met Kouachi in the same jail.  

All this has ignited a vigorous debate about how to manage radicalized prisoners — and how to stop them from spreading extremist views inside.

CSC said there is little hard evidence to show radicalization is occurring inside Canadian institutions, but said the agency is dealing with ways to flag "at-risk" offenders and also to manage those inmates serving time for crimes related to terrorism.

"CSC is reviewing the most effective interventions and management practices for radicalized offenders that are used nationally and internationally," spokeswoman Veronique Rioux told CBC News. "This will include looking at the possibility of adapting or developing a tool to identify offenders who are at risk of being susceptible to radicalization."

Won't reveal numbers

Citing security reasons, CSC would not disclose the number of radicalized offenders now in custody, but said they can be involved in a wide range of behaviours and activities that support extreme political, religious or ideological objectives or causes, including global jihad, terrorist financing or extreme political militantism.

A report from the right-leaning public policy think-tank Macdonald-Laurier Institute by security expert and academic Alex Wilner, (now a senior research affiliate and visiting fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto) sounded the alarm in 2010, noting a "worrying trend" around the world of people having their first serious encounter with radical ideas while behind bars.

Because prisons can be hotbeds for recruitment, his report recommended a sweeping strategy to include barring institutional access to extremists — including some religious leaders. It also suggested providing more training for staff about the warning signs of radicalization and isolating extremists from other prisoners.

"Ideologies that foment political violence can offer structure and meaning to people with disorderly lives, while exploiting their sense of alienation and willingness to engage in acts of violence," the report read. "Allowing these ideologies to spread within our prison system is asking for trouble."

Rioux said CSC's initiatives to prevent radicalization include comprehensive intake and screening procedures and training for front-line staff on security threat group identification.