Protecting Religious Liberty of Prisoners Reduces Terrorist Recruitment Threat, According to Testimony by U.Va.'s Gregory Saathoff

February 08, 2008
February 8, 2008 -- A federal law enacted in 2000 that makes it more difficult for prisons to strip prisoners of access to Islamic literature deemed 'radical,' is actually reducing the threat of Islamic radicalization and terrorist recruitment in American prisons, U.Va. professor Gregory Saathoff argued in testimony today before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington.

To the extent that the law provides a means for prisoners to protest and address genuine religious grievances such as denial of access to certain religious texts, it reduces the chances that such grievances will metastasize into polarizing group humiliations or be exploited by extremists to foment violence, said Saathoff, a professor in psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences and director of the University of Virginia’s Critical Incident Analysis Group.

Saathoff was one of a series of speakers invited to address the topic at the meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent, bipartisan agency charged with monitoring and protecting civil rights. The meeting was convened to discuss issues of religious discrimination and prisoners' rights arising out of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

In his presentation, Saathoff, who has done psychiatric work in prisons for the past 17 years, said that "[t]hrough my discussions with inmates and colleagues within corrections, it is my opinion that the [law] may quell the potential for religious radicalization and polarization."

Saathoff's testimony drew on a report that he co-wrote in 2006: “Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization,” that drew attention to the threat of homegrown terrorist cells forming in U.S. prisons.  The magnitude of this threat is unknown due to a lack of resources and study of the issue, notes the report, produced by U.Va.'s CIAG and the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, whose director, Frank Cilluffo, co-authored the report and joined Saathoff for the testimony.

Saathoff and Cilluffo's testimony to the commission is the latest in a string of high-profile public discussions generated in response to the report, including hearings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, a conference hosted by U.Va.'s Miller Center of Public Affairs and media coverage on NPR and PBS, among others.

About the Critical Incident Analysis Group at the University of Virginia
Critical incidents have the potential for creating social trauma and undermining social trust in government — ultimately impacting community life and even the practice of democracy. The Critical Incident Analysis Group works to understand the impacts of critical incidents on government and the societies they serve and to counteract these effects through the study of past incidents.

About Gregory B. Saathoff
Dr. Saathoff is executive director of the University of Virginia’s Critical Incident Analysis Group and an associate professor in psychiatry, neurobehavioral sciences and emergency medicine at U.Va.'s School of Medicine. As director of CIAG he has organized annual conferences on critical incidents including the D.C. sniper attacks of 2002 and hostage-taking in Iraq. Since 1996 he has served as the conflict resolution specialist for the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group and an adviser to the FBI's Crisis Negotiation Unit and the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

He is currently co-writing a book on clinical forensic poisoning; he led the U.S. contingent of the international medical group that diagnosed and treated the poisoning of Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko in 2004. In 2005, he served as an expert government witness in Federal Court during the prosecution of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali for his role in an Al Qaeda conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush.

Over the past 17 years, Saathoff has been a consultant to several Virginia prisons, performing psychiatric evaluations and treating male and female violent and nonviolent offenders who suffer from mental illness.

He was called from reserve duty and deployed as a medical corps psychiatrist during the 1991 Gulf War, earning the Army Commendation Medal and eventually retiring with the rank of Major. As a member of the University of Virginia’s Kuwait Project, he studied societal trauma in Kuwait subsequent to the Iraqi invasion.