WASHINGTON - For years, law enforcement officials have said the prison atmosphere is ripe for radicalization recruitment, from violent Islamic extremism to white supremacy and Latino gangs.
And with about 2.3 million people currently locked up in America, many lawmakers say that's dangerous for the U.S.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., led a hearing Wednesday on the growing Islamic radicalization behind bars. He warned the threat in U.S. prisons "remains real and present."
The most well-known examples are former convicts Richard Reid, known as the "shoe bomber," and Jose Padilla, who was convicted of conspiring to support terrorists.
Wednesday's hearing was the second meeting by lawmakers meant to analyze homegrown terrorism and Islamization.
This session highlighted other terror plots that involved contact with people in prisons, like the "Lackawanna Six" from Buffalo, N.Y. and the "Virginia Paintball Jihad Network."
A Senate report also unveiled three dozen Americans who converted to Islam in prison, but are now in Yemen -- the homebase for al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
Experts say Islam can be a good influence. But infiltration by radical clerics, plus a lack of standards and practices, create risks both inside and outside the prison walls.
"Instead of providing a balanced, peaceful, contemporary perspective of one of the great and peaceful religions of the world, we are left with a hijacked, cut-and-paste version known to the counterterrorism practitioners as 'Prislam,'" said former assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Smith.
Democrats at the hearing charged that the threat is overblown and discriminatory, suggesting prison gangs and lone wolves pose a greater risk.
Republicans accused their opponents of being short-sighted and blinded by political correctness.
"I just must say the political correctness in this room is astounding," Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said in the congressional chamber.
"How many of the street gangs in either New York or California have an ideology that is dedicated to the destruction of the United States?" he asked.
"Let me define what my political correctness is," Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee responded. "And it happens to be this document -- the Constitution."
"The U.S. prison system has not become a hotbed for radicalization and terrorist activity - nor is it likely to become one," added Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Law enforcement officials from New York and California who have handled cases of prison radicalization testified in Wednesday's hearing.
The White House spoke of religious tolerance before the first Islam hearing was conducted. The administration has not commented on the latest hearing.