Held at the Paris premises of the National School of Magistracy on November 2nd and 3rd, 2023, the seminar of the National Penitentiary Intelligence Service, under the activities of the Intelligence College in Europe, gathered over 150 guests. This included 30 representatives from European penitentiary intelligence services, representatives from all services of the French intelligence community, central offices fighting against organized crime, and the National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT).

The approach to comparing the organizational models of penitentiary intelligence services in Europe led to the organization of the first seminar for European penitentiary intelligence services and was based on a comparative study of these models. The findings were further explored during various presentations, particularly regarding the institutional positioning of penitentiary intelligence services and their methods of information gathering and analysis.

This seminar provided an opportunity to address the current challenges in penitentiary intelligence regarding organization, doctrines, and practices. Six major themes were central to the discussions:

  1. Management of radicalized populations;
  2. The specifics of closed environments for implementing intelligence practices;
  3. Interservice cooperation between open and closed environments;
  4. Interactions between penitentiary intelligence and judicial authorities;
  5. European cooperation;
  6. The contributions of penitentiary intelligence services to understanding contemporary threats.

Exploring other models of penitentiary intelligence organization allowed the French National Penitentiary Intelligence Service (SNRP) to reflect on its own operations and share its expertise with European partners. The SNRP stands out as a unique model in Europe, both for its historical precedence and its resources and objectives. Following a series of events that compromised the security of its facilities in the early 2000s, such as the triple helicopter escape from the central prison of Moulins in July 2000, the mutiny at Clairvaux in February 2003, and the spectacular escape of the prisoner Ferrara after an armed commando attacked the Fresnes prison center in March 2003, the penitentiary administration was compelled to rethink its organization of security and intelligence. However, it was after the wave of attacks in 2015 that the creation of a genuine intelligence service within the Ministry of Justice and the Penitentiary Administration Directorate was initiated in 2017.

This institutional positioning highlights the uniqueness of a hybrid service that belongs both to the intelligence community and the penitentiary administration. The meeting of these two cultures, which mutually enrich each other, allows the SNRP to provide the penitentiary administration with new analytical capabilities regarding security phenomena occurring in detention. In turn, the integration of the SNRP into the intelligence community enhances public intelligence policy with new capabilities for collecting and analyzing national security issues contributed by the penitentiary administration. Thus, the SNRP contributes to the security of penitentiary establishments and, within the intelligence community, to anti-terrorism efforts, combating violent extremism, and policies against organized crime.

Two main models of penitentiary intelligence organization

At the end of the seminar and the study conducted, two institutional models of penitentiary intelligence organization were distinguished:

  1. The vast majority of European services only have penitentiary information collected by their associated penitentiary administration. In these cases, creating an Intelligence Service more so reflects the need for administrations to develop new analytical capabilities for security phenomena occurring in facilities, rather than the development of services with more secretive, even clandestine intelligence capabilities. In these institutional setups, it is the domestic intelligence services that conduct the most intrusive intelligence operations within the facilities;
  • The comparison also highlighted a second model in which penitentiary intelligence services possess all the typical capabilities of an intelligence service: human sources, technical sources, cyber, and partnerships. In this model, exemplified by the French and British cases, penitentiary intelligence contributes equally to the policies carried out by intelligence communities, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism and combating organized crime. In this setup, the penitentiary intelligence service is fully integrated into the national intelligence community. It became evident during the seminar that most services relying primarily on penitentiary information are leaning towards this second model.

Penitentiary intelligence will remain a subject of study and exchange in Europe. An update of the initially shared questionnaire will be sent to members of the Intelligence College in Europe to deepen the understanding of various national experiences. A public strategic analysis note will contribute to academic studies on intelligence and increase the visibility of penitentiary intelligence to a broader audience.