UNODC Publishes First Handbook on Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners

United Nations meeting on preventing violent extremism
Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons on January 16 aimed at strengthening prison management of violent extremist prisoners while upholding prisoners’ human rights. [UN News Centre] The handbook, one in a series of UNODC resources meant to help States implement the rule of law and reform criminal justice systems, makes recommendations to ensure adherence to fundamental human rights, international standards, and good practices in the management of violent extremist prisoners. States are increasingly considering holistic methods to address violent extremism, the handbook notes, which include persuading individuals to disengage with violence and reintegrate into society; prisons, UNDOC suggests, have an important role in implementing that approach. See Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, October 2016, at 1, 4-5. Using existing international standards, and in particular the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), the handbook provides guidelines on prison staff recruitment and training; risk management; prevention of radicalization in prison; social reintegration; post-release support; and fair, humane, and non-discriminatory treatment of prisoners. See id. at 1-2, 7. The handbook is the first UN guidance tool to address radicalization to violence and violent extremism in prison settings.

Managing Violent Extremist Prisoners and Human Rights

Creating a better prison environment and treating prisoners with dignity, the handbook suggests, can help encourage extremist prisoners to voluntarily move away from violence and help prevent radicalization of other prisoners. See id. at 6. Humane behavior towards prisoners, the handbook says, “can create openings for changes in prisoners’ thinking and behaviour.” See id. However, the handbook warns, the emphasis is on disengagement rather than deradicalization, because the latter involves changing views and values rather than simply behavior. See id. at 71. The Human Rights Committee has found deradicalization to violate the right to freedom of expression. See id.

Accordingly, the handbook emphasizes that fundamental human rights must be respected in prison management and that standalone interventions for violent extremist prisoners – defined as those who have embraced violent extremism – implemented in isolation of the broader prison context are unlikely to yield positive results. Specifically, the handbook stresses that efforts to address violent extremism must respect the rights to freedom of thought, religion, or belief and the absolute prohibition of torture to which all persons, including violent extremist prisoners, are entitled. See id. at 135.

At the onset, the handbook reiterates a fundamental principle of international law that requires all prisoners to be treated humanely and in a manner that respects a person’s dignity. See id. at 10 (emphasis added). This entails access to basic living needs, including “light, ventilation, temperature, sanitation, nutrition, drinking water, access to open air and physical exercise, personal hygiene, health care and adequate personal space.” See id. at 11. These basic accommodations must be afforded to violent extremist prisoners and other prisoners alike. See id. at 11.

Managing Prison Staff

The handbook notes that prisons must have sufficient staff to ensure security, safety, and the stability of the institution. See id. at 27. This also includes ensuring that there are enough specialist staff, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, faith leaders, and sports and art instructors, to ensure successful disengagement interventions. See id. at 35-39, 136.

The prison-based disengagement interventions, which aim at disengaging violent extremist prisoners from violence and facilitating their social reintegration, requires staff involvement to implement the activities and evaluate them. See id. at 137-39. The activities involved may include psychological counseling and support, social work, faith-based debate and dialogue, education, vocational training, or creative and physical activities. See id. at 137.

The handbook recognizes that the availability of resources may have an impact on what the disengagement interventions look like, but outlines a reporting component to ensure accountability. Staff should monitor and evaluate interventions to ensure that the goals of the interventions are appropriate and that those goals are met. See id. at 71-72, 137-139.  The handbook suggests that prison authorities adopt ways to show recognition for participation and completion of interventions that family or community members may attend. See id. at 139

In addition to having an adequate number of staff members, the handbook emphasizes the need for careful recruitment of staff and for all staff to receive specialized training for working and interacting with violent extremist prisoners. See id. at 27-28, 136. The publication sets out an obligation on prison staff to protect, uphold, and maintain the human dignity of all prisoners and to maintain high levels of professional standards and ethics, while simultaneously placing a responsibility on States to ensure that staff are not members of violent extremist groups or associated with groups seeking to infiltrate the prison. See id. at 28, 136.

The handbook relies on international standards to emphasize that training of staff is required prior to beginning work (“orientation”) and throughout employment (“refresher”). See id. at 29. This should include managing violent extremists in prison or identifying radicalization; understanding and recognizing violent extremism; anti-conditioning and manipulation training; adhering to ethical and professional standards; interpersonal skills; intelligence gathering; and religious diversity and freedom of religion or belief. See id. at 30.

For lower-resource and post-conflict countries, the handbook suggests that more experience staff provide briefing sessions on relevant topics. See id. at 30-31. Importantly, the handbook sets out conditions of employment that staff members should be afforded, including providing appropriate salaries so that staff are not susceptible to corruption. See id. at 33.

Assessing and Managing Risks Posed by Violent Extremist Prisoners

In assessing and managing risks posed by violent extremist prisoners, the handbook stresses that this be done on an “ongoing and regular” basis, rather than only upon entry. See id. at 136. The assessment should include an analysis of the prisoner’s specific vulnerability and susceptibility to efforts of violent extremist recruiters. See id. at 41. The initial screening should include an assessment of the risk that the prisoner will cause harm to self or others; risk that the prisoner poses a threat to good order and radicalizing others; risk of escape; risk of committing another serious offense while in prison or when released; and risk of committing a serious offence. See id. at 41. The assessments require, according to the handbook, a structured system that takes into account the person’s personal and contextual circumstances that contributed to the alleged offence or are likely to contribute to a future offence. See id. at 55, 136-37.

Additionally, the handbook identifies an obligation on the part of States to ensure that prisoners are separated based on the information gathered through the assessment and are categorized according to the appropriate level of security, gender, legal status, and age. See id. at 42-43, 137. The handbook acknowledges that the suitability of separation or integration will depend on the size of the violent extremist prison population, infrastructure, size and skills level of staff, and other resources. See id. at 45-54, 137.

The handbook specifically distinguishes between men and women violent extremist prisoners noting that States must comply with international standards specific to women, such as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). See id. at 63. Although there is no specific risk assessment tool for women violent extremist prisoners, the handbook suggests that gender-sensitive techniques are adopted to correct the gender imbalance within prison staff and to take into account that some may be victims of sexual violence in need of psychological treatment. See id. at 64-65.

Preventing Radicalization

Other guidance aims at preventing the progression to violent extremism by encouraging authorities to focus on prisoners who may be vulnerable to radicalization to violence. See id. at 1. The handbook describes the main factors that can drive opportunities to being radicalized. These include exposure to an ideology, a range of perceived grievances to which violence seems like the only solution, charismatic leaders, a need to satisfy basic physical and general needs, and religion. See id. at 111-13. In this regard, the handbook notes the relevance of overall prison conditions, stating that “vulnerability to radicalization to violence is exacerbated in prions that are overcrowded, understaffed, fail to provide basic services to prisoners, or are otherwise managed in a disorderly manner.” See id. at 2. The handbook specifically notes that addressing prison conditions and overcrowding are essential to efforts aimed at protecting prisoners from joining a violent extremist group. See id. at 139.

Prisoner Reintegration

The handbook prioritizes a holistic and multidisciplinary approach for addressing violent extremist prisoners’ reintegration into society that involves different stakeholders, such as civil society organizations, public and private institutions, and families and communities. See id. at 140. Further, the handbook highlights the importance of educating society in order to create a welcoming and enabling environment that reduces stigmatization and providing protective measures for violent extremist prisoners that are released from custody but that may face threats to their lives. See id. at 40, 125-26. It suggests a post-release formal or informal monitoring or supervision mechanism to deter recidivism. See id. at 40, 131-33.


The handbook comes at a time when many countries face a threat from violent extremism and acts of violent extremism regularly take place around the world. See id. at 3. In addition to the Nelson Mandela Rules, the handbook draws on research and guidelines published by the Council of Europe, Global Counterterrorism Forum, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, and International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and also notes other human rights standards. A separate UNODC publication will deal with children accused of committing extremist offences and will apply a different legal framework focused on children deprived of their liberty. See id. at 1, 3.

The human rights community has recently addressed violent extremism and human rights in other contexts. For example, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism last year presented a report focused on defining the term extreme and addressing counter terrorism measures that may implicate other human rights. The report called for protections of the right to freedom of expression, particularly condemning the suppression of peaceful expression of “extreme” viewpoints. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, UN Doc. A/HRC/31/65, 22 February 2016, paras. 9, 13, 21, 24, 39, 41-46. [OHCHR Press Release; IJRC]

The UNODC operates all over the world, focusing on field-based projects, research, and normative work to assist States in combating illicit drugs, crime, and terrorism in line with international law.  Specifically regarding criminal justice reform, UNODC promotes using training manuals and adopting codes of conduct, standards, and norms aimed at ensuring a criminal justice system that is grounded on international human rights standards. See UNODC, About UNODC. UNODC’s work on criminal justice reform includes police reform, prosecution service, the judiciary, access to legal defense and legal aid, prison reform and alternatives to imprisonment, and restorative justice. See UNODOC, Criminal Justice Reform.

Additional Information

For more information on the work of UN Special Procedures and other UN bodies regarding violent extremism or human rights news related to counterterrorism, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.