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In March an Islamist suspect was arrested on accusations of plotting an imminent bomb attack on French soil. He had spent five months in jail last year for drugs and theft offences.
“We’re faced with an external enemy in Mali, but also an enemy from within who is the product of radicalisation,” said Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who acknowledged that Merah’s killing spree had revealed a serious lapse in intelligence.
“They start as minor delinquents, move into selling drugs, sometimes do prison time and convert to radical Islam and hate towards the West,” he told local media in February.
“A GOOD SCHOOL”
Noisy, dirty and smelling of garbage, Villepinte is the most crowded jail in the Paris region, called the “jungle” by guards. France’s prisons watchdog, after a 2009 visit, described its inmates as “young, undisciplined and totally uncontrollable”.
Brawls occur weekly and staff, many of them trainees, live in fear of attack. In January an optometrist was knifed in the eye with a pair of scissors. Absenteeism is sky-high among guards, who say they are overwhelmed by the daily challenge of keeping order.
“Islamic radicalisation is a real curse in most of our prisons,” Villepinte guard Blaise Gangbazo told Reuters. “But in tough jails like ours it comes about even more easily. It’s a good school.”
France’s prison population has grown by a third in the past decade, partly due to policies under conservative governments of handing down heavy sentences on repeat petty offenders.
No official data exist but sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar says about half the 67,674 prison population is Muslim, rising to 70 percent in some urban areas. This disproportionate ratio of young, disadvantaged Muslims is added to a toxic mix of overcrowding, overtaxed guards and a lack of mainstream Muslim chaplains to discourage radicalisation.
Vulnerable young men typically arrive in jail, isolated from family and friends at a time of personal crisis, and become susceptible to recruitment by radicals. One such case was Karim Mokhtari, who at 18 was jailed for over six years for a botched robbery in which a man was shot.
While in jail in the northern city of Amiens, he met a soft-spoken older inmate who consoled him, invited him to pray and encouraged him to read the Koran in Arabic. “When you arrive in prison you feel completely abandoned. You get there and you need to find some strength,” said Mokhtari.