The 21st century is seeing a growth in radicalization. Canada’s prisons are not immune, and sociologists Sandra Bucerius and Kevin Haggerty are collaborators on an innovative research project that has given them unprecedented access to Canada’s correctional facilities.
Drawing from combined expertise in urban ethnography, surveillance and the criminal justice system, Bucerius and Haggerty are engaged in a first-of-its-kind Canadian study that will contribute to the global conversation around radicalized and potentially violent extremism, identifying its roots and developing best practices to prevent and mitigate its progression, both inside and outside our prisons.
Typically, radicalization is associated with extremist religious movements, but Bucerius says radicalization is not limited to any ethnic, religious or special interest group and can occur among people of all backgrounds. “We take a broad approach in our understanding of radicalization,” she says. “[We are looking at] right wing groups, Freeman on the Land, Islamic extremism, environmental extremists and others. Our hypothesis is that prisons can be a place where radical groups flourish, and that radical groups offer a place of belonging, which poses unique challenges to prison staff.”
Prisons have a long history of gang affiliation, but what is unknown in this contemporary context is the source and degree of radicalization: where it begins, and where it ends. “This is one of the research questions,” says Haggerty. “There is some research going on in Europe and in the U.S., but literally none in Canada. It’s a blank slate. If people are radicalized in prison, do they maintain that identity once they’re out, or is it just an identity of convenience – of protection and belonging?”
“Prisons can be a place where radical groups flourish, and that radical groups offer a place of belonging, which poses unique challenges to prison staff.” – Sandra Bucerius
Collaboration at all levels is key and will primarily involve correctional officers, inmates and other members of the criminal justice system. Graduate students will also be involved, and will assist with the interviews. Haggerty hopes the students will also “spin off their own research questions.”
Haggerty, a Killam Research Laureate, credits a series of connections, in particular a graduate-level course on radicalization in which he and Bucerius were co-lecturers, as the inspiration for the project. However, as Bucerius notes, their individual strengths will drive much of the research.
“It will work perfectly,” she says. “[Haggerty] has a focus on correctional officers, whereas I have tended to do research on vulnerable and marginalized populations. We can bring it together quite nicely.”
With a significant portion of Bucerius’ scholarly work devoted to studying refugee integration in Canada and Europe, the 2016 recipient of the Martha Cook Piper Research Prize is well situated to engage in a prison study that is focused on identity and belonging. Recently returned from a “small and very conservative” village in Germany in the midst of refugee integration, Bucerius sees the prison study as an extension to her work with other at-risk communities, including the Somali community and a new, SSHRC-funded project that is looking at community relationship-building between the Syrian refugee communities and the Edmonton and Calgary Police Services.
“We know that strong partnerships between newcomer communities and the police are crucial,” she says, “and trust is paramount for achieving such partnerships.”
“If people are radicalized in prison, do they maintain that identity once they’re out, or is it just an identity of convenience – of protection and belonging?” – Kevin Haggerty
Community-building outside of prisons, as well as inside, is integral to the health of all communities in Canada. How, and to what extent, some of these relationships may be radicalized is yet to be determined, but in an era of polarized and often toxic affiliations, the research undertaken by Haggerty and Bucerius may provide much-needed answers to these critical and globally-significant questions.
“This project will be the largest research endeavour on prisons in the history of Canadian criminology,” says Bucerius. “I strongly believe that scholars should strive to translate their knowledge and research findings for people outside the ivory tower. Even if we can’t save the world, I think research can and should have a positive impact for a group of people, a community, or how an institution thinks and acts.”