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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Islam in American Prisons

By Siraj Islam Mufti

In the 1940s, the only religious services permitted in U.S. prisons were for Christianity. The only other exception was for Judaism, and a rabbi from outside the prison was provided to offer Sabbath services. The Qur'an was not allowed in prisons and if found with an inmate, was confiscated. Then in the 1960s, the famous Shabbaz vs. the State legal ruling gave Muslims their initial legal recognition.

Although once strange and feared, Islam is no longer an unknown entity within American prisons and is almost accorded the same recognition as Christianity and Judaism. Currently, there are approximately 350,000 Muslims in Federal, state and local prisons - with 30,000-40,000 being added to that number each year. These inmates mostly came into prison as non-Muslims. But, it so happens that once inside the prison a majority turns to Islam for the fulfillment of spiritual needs. Thus, finding new meaning to their lives, along with self-respect for themselves they never could have envisioned before in the streets. Islam has brought about an abrupt change in their personalities is even acknowledged by their non-Muslim overseers.

Having lost all contact with the outside world, prison inmates lead a very secluded life. This loss of contact takes its toll on them, gnawing at their psyche and leading to boredom and depression. Thus, the major cause of death within prison walls is suicide. But strangely, this isolation also works to their advantage by giving them a major asset that people in the outside world, especially in the West, do not possess. This is the asset of time, and they have plenty of it. Utilizing it, a substantial number of them turn to religion for spiritual fulfillment. More than any other religion, Islam meets this yearning. It is estimated that of those who seek faith while imprisoned, about 80% come to Islam. This fact alone is a major contributor to the phenomenal growth of Islam in the U.S.

Larry Poston (2000) observes a pattern in conversion to Islam in Western societies. It starts by disillusionment with one's original religion, followed by a long period of exploration for alternatives. The search ends in dropping other alternatives in favor of Islam. Those converting are characterized by seekership and retain a religious problem-solving perspective. Two factors stand out as most significant for those encountering Islam. First, some personal contact with a Muslim acquaintance or friend, and through this casual social association, an attraction to Islam. Second, exposure to Islamic literature of some kind - including the Qur'an - which allows for a careful and deliberate evaluation in decision making. This observation also holds true for those imprisoned. An inmate mostly studying on his own, or by his listening to another inmate and impressed by his personal example, becomes convinced by and finds guidance within Islam.

Poston states that Islam becomes a middle point in this search between Western and Eastern religions. The converts are familiar with historical descriptions in the Qur'an and are attracted by distinctive characteristics of Islam that separate it from Christianity or Judaism, such as: no clerical hierarchy or a privileged class; its egalitarianism; its comprehensivity encompassing a political, economic and social agenda for this world; and its superb rationality.

Islam is even more distinct from other Eastern religious alternatives. God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, is One; as well as personally involved in human affairs, communicating via His Book, His Angels and His Prophets; there is a moral order and humans are answerable to God for their actions. The Islamic worldview carries a purpose and meaning. Humankind is God's representative on Earth and endowed with His trust. There will be an ending; and a final resurrection leading to a final judgement followed by a state of eternal existence.

Poston also applauds the great blessing within Islam that a convert enjoys most: a support group of international proportions. This is the universal Islamic Ummah, which surpasses all distinctions of race, color and geographic location. Thus, a convert is initiated into a worldwide network that provides him with a consistent confirmation of his decision. Such a sense of belonging is particularly valuable for an inmate who is cut off from the world.

From my personal experience as a chaplain in the U.S. Federal penal system, Islam is most impressive for prison inmates because of its simplicity, comprehensiveness, universal egalitarianism, and the brotherhood of its community. It has special appeal to those who are oppressed and are not tied to any privileged class. Thus, African Americans are historically attracted to it, and constitute the majority of inmates accepting Islam.

Also, inmates particularly appreciate Islamic practices because they are unbound by any institutional or hierarchical requirement. An inmate does not need a church authority for its confirmation; in fact, Islam is antagonistic to any concept of clerical hierarchy. Indeed, he can perform the prayers without resorting to outside attestation. One cannot but be impressed by the elegance of the five daily obligatory salat (prayers) performed in a group. As another instance, the month of Ramadan in particular, has a special significance for inmates in prison. The self-discipline and devotion it inspires impresses them. It is a time of intense spiritual activity along with abstention from food and drink. The days are spent in reading the Qur'an and reflecting on its message, interspersed by obligatory and supererogatory prayers and the evenings in special prayers ( taraweeh ) ending in nightly vigil ( tahajjud ). It serves to solidify their bonds of brotherhood. With these palpable changes, their behavior becomes exemplary.

Islam places great emphasis on the reformation of an individual within a society. Even more so, on individuals who are guilty of a crime: they should be reminded and helped in this endeavor. Reformation and rehabilitation of an inmate must start within the prison and continue when he or she leaves. Individual reformation starts with a self-purification process ( tazkia tun-nafs ) that includes cultivation of faith ( iman ) and God-consciousness ( taqwa ), combined with the righteous conduct ( aml salih ). A believer must be constantly engaged in this struggle ( jihad ) of tazkia tun-nafs with his ultimate desire being to attain the grace ( rahmah ) and pleasure ( rida ) of God.

Most inmates come into prison with a variety of addictions. An anti-addiction group called Millat Islami, wherever active, has had remarkable success among inmates. Islamic rehabilitation for addicts aims at changing his/her heart and mind by developing taqwa, thereby generating a sincere and conscientious effort to give up the addiction. Such addicts must be constantly persuaded and carefully reminded of the Islamic prohibition against intoxicants. For the weak, Islam offers the motive of tawbah (repentance) and of asking for forgiveness from the Lord and Creator who is Tawwab (Often Returning), regardless of how often one falters if they repent sincerely. For those complying with God's edict, the immediate reward is apparent psychological elation and personal fulfillment.

Unfortunately, there is a dire shortage of qualified persons who can teach Islam in an institutional setting. Because most of Islam is self-taught, an inmate's understanding is often skewed, with more emphasis placed on exterior appearances such as wearing a koofi (skullcap), and possessing a prayer rug and prayer beads.

Also, initially, because of its black nationalism aspects, African American converts to Islam were predominantly associated with the Nation of Islam started by Elijah Muhammad. Presently, most are merged into one community of believers representing the universal Ummah with one creed and belief focusing on the centrality of Allah. Internalization of Islam comes with time, study and reflection. Inmates want to learn and become better Muslims, but there is little support provided them from the outside.

There are very few Muslim chaplains in U.S. prisons. For example, of the more than 200 chaplains in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, less than a dozen are Muslim. The situation is not much different in state and local prison systems. The only possible exception is the state of New York, which has more than 40 full-time Muslim chaplains due to its large population of Muslim inmates. Contracting with local Islamic centers makes up for deficiencies in most cases. But while volunteers of other faiths flood federal, state and local prisons, regrettably few Muslims volunteer.

It is generally recognized that the rate of recidivism among Muslims is low and a majority of them are far less likely to become repeat offenders. Sadly, however, after their release only about 25% of them can pursue their Islamic practices with any regularity. This is because most of their time is taken up by employment needs and the need to deal with bills for expenses incurred by the family while the inmate was incarcerated. There is little time available to visit Islamic centers and/or meet with the community.

It is time that the Muslim community appraises itself of its obligation of dawa (Islamic outreach), and in particular of its responsibility towards the incarcerated. They must overcome the inhibitions against involvement in prisons and the fear of contact with criminals. Not only do the Muslims inside prison need help, but more importantly, so do the Muslim ex-offenders after their release. They must be supported in their journey within Islam and must be shown how to become contributing members of the Islamic community.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) have been bringing prison chaplains and volunteers together since 1998 in their "Islam in American Prison" conferences. These delegates deliberate on various ways of serving inmates, such as the provision of free literature within prison, helping the families of those incarcerated, building halfway houses for those released, and similar other beneficial measures. Whether American Muslims urgently respond to their recommendations for this neglected part of the community, is yet to be seen.

Siraj Islam Mufti, Ph.D. is a researcher and freelance journalist. He frequently contributes articles to the Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim American Society, and United Association for Studies and Research.

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