At the prison in Nasiriyah, Iraq, September 2011.
Atef Hassan / REUTERS

Almost every day, officials in Iraq arrest and imprison dozens of suspected Islamic State (ISIS) militants. According to Human Rights Watch, over the past two years, more than 9,000 have been sent to jail on ISIS-related charges, and most of them are housed in Iraqi Kurdistan because of its relatively tighter security. It might seem like good news that so many terrorists have been taken off the battlefield, but the number of prisoners is becoming a serious problem, especially as Iraqi and Western forces push deeper into ISIS' territory and make even more arrests. The vast number of inmates is putting enormous pressure on Iraq’s and Kurdistan’s economies and criminal justice systems and may create a whole new set of ISIS threats.

Housing an ISIS prisoner is expensive. In a region where the average teacher’s salary is $300 a month, incarceration costs about $250 per day per prisoner, according to Dler Aggid, a former director of the Kurdish regional security forces' jail in Garmean. Food alone accounts for $42 per day; other expenses include security and housing. Health care is especially costly, because in addition to routine care, many ISIS prisoners require extensive treatment for severe wounds sustained around the time of their captures. One failed Chechen suicide bomber, for example, spent a month in the hospital and three more receiving medical treatment for gunshot and shrapnel wounds before he was well enough to face trial. The ongoing Iraqi financial crisis is making things worse. “Last year, we were not able to take prisoners from the prison to the courts,” Shwan Burhan, who works for the legal department of Muaskar Salam prison, told me. “We just could not afford the gas.”

Overcrowding is also a growing problem. Muaskar Salam prison was built to house 1,000 prisoners. Now it holds 1,200. The Garmean jail, the facility closest to the frontline with ISIS near northern Diyala and Saladin Provinces, was designed to hold 50 prisoners. It is now houses three times as many inmates. Kurdistan regional security forces have had to ask local security forces to use their jails. “We have asked for support from international organizations on multiple occasions,” Dler Aggid explained, “but only once has the Red Cross sent us humanitarian aid, in the form of toothbrushes and pajamas.”

A suspected ISIS fighters during an interview with Reuters in a Kurdish security compound in Erbil, Iraq, November 2016.
A suspected ISIS fighters during an interview with Reuters in a Kurdish security compound, Erbil, Iraq, November 2016.
Azad Lashkari / REUTERS

The overcrowding will get worse as the government is pushed to close major prisons thanks to the financial crisis. Baghdad plans to close the prison in Chamchamal, a city west of Sulaymaniyah, by the end of 2016. Its inmates will be transferred to a U.S.-built prison in Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. It is unclear whether that facility will be able to hold the new prisoners, especially as their ranks grow as a result of the ongoing Mosul operation.

The increase in the number of prisoners has also put pressure on the court system. Financial problems have rendered the Kurdistan Regional Government unable to pay government employees on a regular basis, so courts do not operate on a regular schedule. Aggid remembered, “We took a detainee to court, but no one was working, so we had to bring him back to jail and wait another month for him to see the judge.”

The regular court system is also dealing with foreign fighters. Although countries in the West mostly try repatriated citizens at home, states such as Russia and Tajikistan do not. Translating for these prisoners is a major problem. “It took us several days to find out the first language of the Chechen fighter,” Aggid told me. “In ISIS, he learned enough Arabic to understand prison guards, but for the court, everything needed to be translated into his native language by an unbiased translator.”

It is not clear how long the courts will operate at half speed. Nor can anyone guess how long ISIS members will remain in the penal system after they have been convicted. According to Burhan, sentences range from five years for involvement in ISIS and spreading the militant group’s propaganda to the death penalty for killings. Yet many ISIS members sentenced to death by the Iraqi federal government find their sentences commuted to life imprisonment by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The situation is already dire, but it could become worse when the Iraqi army reaches the ISIS stronghold in the western part of Mosul.

Such bureaucratic problems also raise human-rights concerns, which could have a direct effect on future conflicts in the country. Human Rights Watch has pointed to cases of men arrested on ISIS-related charges who have simply disappeared from the system. Their families have not been able to get any information about them, and it is not clear why they have been detained or when their trials will start. According to Belkis Wille, a senior Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, “taking into account Iraq’s history of forced disappearances, this practice is very dangerous.”

Further, as disconcerting as the overcrowding and financial strain are, they are not as troubling as the prospect of the prison system becoming a breeding ground for a new insurgency, as was the case with the U.S. prison system in Iraq. There, incarcerated insurgent leaders used their time to develop strategies and recruit new fighters for radical groups.

In Iraqi prisons and jails, inmates’ movements and interactions in common areas are not restricted. According to Aggid, although prisoner behavior is well monitored during the investigative process, surveillance is considerably more lax after sentencing. Long-term ISIS inmates are all housed together; moreover, they are free to interact with short-term ISIS prisoners as well as with people incarcerated for crimes unrelated to terrorism. “All the terror-related prisoners are in one section of Muaskar Salam,” Burhan told me. “They interact with one another within the section, but in common spaces of the prison, like the prison’s only mosque, they also interact with prisoners [detained] on non-terrorism charges.”

Iraqi special forces in Mosul, November 2016.
Iraqi special forces in Mosul, November 2016.
Alaa Al-Marjani / REUTERS

“People on ISIS charges are sticking together for collective prayers and Koran recitations," one non-ISIS inmate from Garmian jail said, "but because they are constantly watched, there is no room for organizing anything else, for example, political activity.” Their cohesive group is attractive to other inmates, however. Another man recently released after a six-month stint in Muaskar Salam prison on drug-related charges said that he had spent a lot of time with ISIS prisoners. "ISIS guys are very serious," he said. "They treat others with respect, not like the other inmates. They have interesting life experiences and deep religious knowledge. I was very interested in talking to them and learning more about religion, especially now that I have decided to quit drugs and start a new life.”

Although Iraqi prison guards are doing their best to control ISIS members, they can’t watch them all the time. If ISIS inmates can get together for religious activities, proselytize freely, and attract inmates imprisoned for charges unrelated to terrorism, they can spread their political beliefs.

Although Iraq’s financial situation may improve with the recent rise in oil prices, the trouble in the prisons should be addressed with international help. More long-term investment is needed. Not attending to Iraq’s prison problem could hurt the fight against ISIS and facilitate the mobilization of terrorist groups in the future.

  • VERA MIRONOVA is an International Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.
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