Dangerous Convictions: Extremist Recruitment in America's Prisons

  • July 2, 2002


Read ADL's comprehensive report, Dangerous Convictions: Extremist Recruitment in America's Prisons (PDF)

Americans are not immune to the lure of violent ideologies. They join homegrown terrorist groups or sometimes enlist in distant movements - as with Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. More recently, Floridian Jose Padilla was arrested for allegedly plotting a "dirty bomb" attack in the U.S. for Al Qaeda.

According to news reports, Padilla became interested in Islam during or shortly after a Florida prison stay in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade he was in the Middle East meeting with senior Al Qaeda officials. Whether he converted to an extreme version of Islam while a prisoner or whether his prison time merely made him more receptive, it is likely that his imprisonment influenced his eventual conversion.

Though few American prisoners end up in Afghanistan, America's prisons are filled with potential extremist recruits. Angry, alienated, and often with little to lose, prisoners often prove receptive to extreme belief systems of all stripes.

For extremist groups, inmates represent a valuable source of potential; people who can carry on the struggle in prison and after their release. While right-wing groups tend to dominate prisoner recruiting, left-wing groups provide support to imprisoned members. Fringe groups and movements from all over the political spectrum including Muslim, anti-government, Christian Identity, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, skinhead, animal rights, anti-globalization, environmental and anarchist ideologies, among others, attempt to exert an influence within prison walls.

New recruits adopt their gang's violent, hateful rhetoric and animosity toward other races or religions and, in turn, gain access to new avenues of criminal activity. While many prisoners discontinue their association with extremist groups once they are released, many retain their fanatical position and commit new crimes based on their newly found extremist beliefs.

Ideologically motivated prisoners and followers in the free world transcend prison walls and communicate through newsletters, pen pals and extremist literature. Far more active and less isolated than one might imagine, they pose a dangerous threat to our nation and the world.


More from this Section