Canada’s spies could do a better job of investigating extremism in the prison system, according to an internal report.
The document, obtained through an access to information request, is the result of a behind-the-scenes review of how the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP share information.
“One of our concerns is the lack of coverage for those convicted of terrorism offenses once they are in prison,” the report said. It was written by two national security lawyers commissioned by the RCMP and CSIS to make recommendations to address information sharing bottlenecks in the area of national security intelligence.
“It is recognized that there is a problem with radicalization within our correctional institutions, not only Islamic extremism but also far-right white nationalism,” the report said. “The vast majority of inmates will be released into the community. The challenge is to monitor these released offenders to assess the threat posed, if any.”
The authors write that while it is impossible for CSIS to investigate every potential threat, “it can and should investigate threats emanating from detainees”.
“Once a person has been convicted of a terrorism offence, it is likely that they will continue to adhere to an extremist ideology and influence others who will pose a threat to national security after their release,” says The report.
“Without visibility into the correctional environment, it’s conceivable that we don’t know the people who pose a threat upon release.”
Extremism at the bottom of the prison hierarchy: study
The 253-page “top secret” report proposes changes to allow provincial and federal corrections officials to better share information with CSIS and the RCMP.
“This will allow these agencies to develop appropriate threat management measures to manage offenders who pose threats and who have recently been released from prison,” the document reads.
But William Shultz, a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta, said his research shows that prison culture and its hierarchies could actually control extremism.
Schulz said a basic level of patriotism in prison populations makes associating with known terrorists quite risky.
“There is almost a pride in Canadian national identity and terrorism is seen as a bad deed against that,” he said.
“There’s often a broad assumption that people in prison are…sort of a blank slate on which you can just stamp whatever extremist beliefs you want, [and] It is not the case at all. There are very distinct subcultural factors at play.”
Between 2016 and 2017, Shultz and her co-authors gained unprecedented access to several Canadian prisons as part of their study. They interviewed nearly 600 inmates and around 130 prison officers about prison life, asking them if they had observed radicalized messages or recruitment in prisons.
“To assume that just because someone is now convicted and they’re going to come out of prison as a terrorist, or they’re going to build and breed new little terrorists in prison, is a real problem,” Schulz said.
“I have real concerns because you end up demonizing incarcerated people who are one of, if not the most vulnerable, populations in Canada.”
But he agreed with the report’s conclusion that the RCMP, CSIS and corrections should communicate more.
“I think anyone who has worked in these agencies is going to shake their head right now in disgust,” he said. “It’s not an intentional thing but often there is [this] kind of internalized war between different agencies.
“And prisons are particularly bad for that because they’re kind of at the end of the road.”
The office of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino — which oversees the Correctional Service of Canada, CSIS and the RCMP — did not respond to CBC’s request for comment.
Earlier this week, CSIS Director David Vigneault told a special joint committee of MPs that an increasing share of his agency’s resources would be used to investigate ideologically motivated violent extremism in Canada.
“I would say that almost 50% of our counter-terrorism capacity is now devoted to this phenomenon, unlike the phenomenon of religiously motivated attacks. [extremism], and that is indeed one of our concerns. We see [it] both in Canada and around the world,” he said Tuesday evening.
“We are constantly looking at the movement of ideologically motivated violent extremists, so we have a pretty good understanding of the dynamics at play.”
A CSIS spokesman said it was working to implement the report’s recommendations “where appropriate”, while acknowledging that more could be done.