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Critics: Belgian Plan To Deradicalize Prisons Will Create More Terrorists

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And just days before suicide bombers detonated their explosives in Brussels, Belgium's Ministry of Justice released a plan to wipe out radicalization in its prisons. The most controversial proposal would segregate prisoners believed to have embraced an extreme form of Islam. Critics predict that will end up creating more terrorists. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Brussels.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: That's the sound of the front gate at Forest Prison. And if you were trying to trace in Ibrahim el Bakraoui's journey towards radicalization, you'd probably start right where I'm standing right now, 50 feet from the front door of Forest. Ibrahim el Bakraoui blew himself up at the Brussels Airport on March 22. And Luc Vervaet, an advocate for prison reform in Belgium, says he's worried that the prison system itself is making detainees more violent.

LUC VERVAET: If you come in like a little petty thief, you can get out of the prison someone who of is capable to attack a money transport with a bazooka.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Ibrahim el Bakraoui only served a fraction of a nine-year sentence for bank robbery. And when he was released, he wasn't reformed. He was radicalized - so radicalized that Turkish authorities found him on the border with Syria allegedly trying to join ISIS. Belgium is trying to fix that. About a week before the attacks, the Justice Ministry released a plan to address issues like chronic overcrowding and poor guard training. The most controversial aspect of the proposal involves segregating inmates believed to have radicalized from the general population of the prison.

VERVAET: For me this is what I call a Guantanimization (ph) of the conceptions, yeah?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba is essentially a Muslim detention facility filled with prisoners the U.S. accuses of terrorism. Prison activist Vervaet worries the Belgian solution will end up doing the same.

VERVAET: They're creating a little prison inside the prison.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This has been done before. In the 1980s, British authorities separated inmates from the IRA, or Irish Republican Army, from the rest of the prison population. But according to Philippe Massay, a Belgian criminologist, it backfired.

PHILIPPE MASSAY: They found that was not a good idea because there was an - a sort of attraction for general population for those people who are in specific area.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, what was supposed to be a punishment for the IRA ended up becoming quite the opposite. Prisoners wanted to be moved into the segregated wing. The Belgian plan suggests putting some of its Muslim prisoners into something similar. But in this case, the authorities would provide counseling to de-radicalize them. Most analysts agree that singling out Muslim prisoners will only reinforce the radical narrative and further convince them that the West is at war with Islam. In addition to being a criminologist, Philippe Massay is also a guard at Lantin Prison, just outside of Liege. And he's seen one of his prisoners trying to radicalize another.

MASSAY: He met him when they walk outside. And he give him advice; he give him food. And they are always together. The prisoner was the target. He's changing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Massay says the changes were subtle. So he's worried if segregation happens, prisoners who radicalize will go underground because they know if they show signs of change they could be moved. Massay says he isn't completely against the new segregation plan, but he worries that making these kinds of decision so soon after the Brussels attacks may not be a good idea.

MASSAY: It's very dangerous to take politic decision under emotion, and emotion is huge now in Belgium.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The Ministry of Justice declined to answer our questions about radicalization in prisons. Instead, it sent us a fact sheet laying out the new plan. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.