Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Prison System By Rami Nsour

Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Prison System By Rami Nsour

I believe that every American has the duty to know what is going on with incarceration in our country.  We house the largest number of prisoners in the world, pay for it with our tax dollars and support it by legislation that we vote for.  In addition to this civic duty of knowing about and working for the betterment of the system of incarceration in our country, Muslims citizens have the added religious duty helping the incarcerated, whether they are Muslims or the non-Muslims.  We should know where this religious duty comes from and why.  Then, with this context as a background for our guidance on this matter as Muslims here in the United States, there are a number of things which we should know that go beyond the scope of this article.  Each of these subjects can be studied in-depthly are directly related to how the prison system operates today and affects the Muslims who are in those prisons.  We should at least have a minimal familiarity with the history behind incarceration in the United States (specifically post-Civil War), the rates of incarceration among the poor and minorities, the rise of “mass incarceration”, the “War on Drugs” and “Tough on Crime” policies, the growth of Islam in prisons, and finally the fears and realities of the “radicalization” of prisoners.

The Stance of Islam on Helping Prisoners

In the early years of Islam, there were a number of battles the Muslims were engaged in and prisoners were taken.  These early days of Islam were a period of continued guidance, with revelation being sent to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as events occurred.  In response to having prisoners and as a guidance for the treatment of these prisoners, a verse of the Qur’an was revealed saying, “And they give food, in spite of the love for it, to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner.”  The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) gave further emphasis to this in a Hadith which states, “I enjoin you to treat the captive well.”  The result of this guidance was that the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad  (peace be upon him) cared and honored the prisoners with one prisoner saying he was fed bread while his captors ate dates, the former type of food being a higher and preferred one.  This seemingly simple guidance, but deeply profound, should be a reminder for us all to not forget helping even those who have committed crimes.  

One lesson that I have taken from this, in my work in the last 14 years teaching and aiding in the betterment of Muslim prisoners here in the United States, is that the Qur’anic and Hadith guidance on this matter forces us to remember the humanity of the prisoners, how to uphold the rights of those who have wronged us, and most importantly that the ability for reform (tawbah) is always there and we should never give up on anyone.

Two things that I would like to mention about the aforementioned Qur’anic verse, which also will serve as a reminder that we do not bind ourselves to a complete literalist interpretation.  The verse mentions “prisoners”, which at the time of the revelation, were non-Muslims.  Secondly, the verse is an order to give “food.”  Although this verse was revealed during a time when the prisoners were polytheists, the early Quranic Exegists (mufasirun) such as Qatadah and others, have stated that we have an even greater right to care for our Muslim brothers and sisters who are in prison.  The Quranic Exegists also point out that while the order is to give “food,” that should not preclude us from giving anything that is needed, whether it be clothing, housing, or even spiritual nourishment.  It is this last example of “food” which the Tayba Foundation is committed to by making high quality authentic Islamic education available to Muslim prisoners through distance and correspondence learning.             

Mass Incarceration in the United States

Between 1925 and 1975, the United States had between 100,000 to 200,000 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons.  Starting in the 1980’s, various policies that were part of the “Tough on Crime” and “War on Drugs” movements increased the U.S. incarcerated population over 500% in 30 years with now over 2.3 Million people in jails and prisons.  Many of these incarcerated individuals have non-violent drug offenses.  One of our best students at Tayba (who became Muslim while incarcerated) was given three life sentences as a juvenile for a non-violent drug offense (possession of less than one gram of crack cocaine) and he served 22 years in prison.  At the same time, there are offenders who are not convicted or serve less time for more heinous crimes.  Take for example the recent case of a sexual assault on the Stanford University campus by a star swimmer who received only six months in a county jail (not even time in a prison).  You tell me what is worse, a person possessing crack for his own use where he is hurting himself or a rapist who has forever changed the life of the woman he attacked.  One difference in these two cases that is clear from the beginning is that the person possessing the crack was an African American male and the rapist was a affluent white male.    

A second cause of the increase in the U.S. incarcerated population is the de-institutionalization of the state mental health asylums.  This led to what some refer to as the “criminalization of mental” in that persons who should be receiving treatment for their illness are warehoused without treatment in prisons.  Dr. Terry Kupers has done amazing work on this subject and his book “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It” shows how the percentage of the mentally ill in prison is very high and in some cases, reaches 50%.  

Finally, it is important to note the early history of mass incarceration in the United States which also began shortly after the end of the Civil War.  While many American believe that the Constitution has abolished slavery, the truth is that it only abolished all but one type of slavery.  The 13th amendment states that in Section 1 that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  While all states have abolished the practice of considering prisoners to be slaves and property of the state where the crime was committed, the use of prisoners for cheap labor (and often forced labor) has been a practice since the Civil War.  

Recidivism: Going Back to Prison

One of the realities for prisoners in America is the high likelihood of their returning to prison once they are release, which is called the recidivism rate, and can range from 70-90%. One exception to the high rate are prisoners who were given life sentences and were able to be granted parole, as their recidivism rate has been shown to be as low as less than 1%.  

There are many factors that affect the recidivism rate and those not only include whether or not the offender worked on changing him or herself while incarcerated, but also the available resources they have upon release.  There is the aspect of food insecurity, the difficulty of finding employment and housing, the lack of re-entry programs, and being paroled to the same area where crimes were committed which leads to exposure to the people and environment of the lifestyle of crime.  In my experience over the years with prisoners, I can see how difficult it is to have a successful reentry into society, but even with the odds against them, I have seen many successful stories. Some of my students have gone on to establish successful business or nonprofits, work with local city governments and police departments, and participate and excel in both undergraduate and graduate programs in various fields.  

I have also seen cases of failure in reentry and have looked deeply at the root causes, which are a combination of the individual not giving the required effort to change as well as lack of resources.  Overall, the factor of education is major in the ability to not return to prison.  In a meta analysis study of fourteen studies done for the Department of Justice, it was found “that prisoners who merely participated in postsecondary education while in prison were 46% less likely to recidivate than members of the general prison population.”  While research has shown the power of higher education, one of the policies that came out of the “tough on crime” movement was a bill signed into legislation by Bill Clinton to make prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants.  The work that we do at Tayba Foundation is not only to provide Islamic education, but to do it in the medium of college-level classes so that our students get the benefits of participating in higher education without any cost to them.  Additionally, Tayba also in California advocated for state funding to be used to support prisoners taking community college classes.

In addition to education, the need for support upon release is crucial.  Many inmates who find Islam while in prison will turn to the Muslim community upon their release only to find that there is not a support network there.  Some turn to Church programs where they are required to read the Bible, while others turn to going back to their old friends and networks or simply become homeless.  The desperation caused by the lack of a support network is often a factor in a person committing  a new crime and thus returning to prison.  It is unfortunate that we as Americans are satisfied with our government spending an average of $30,000-60,000 while a fraction of that amount would never get approval for college funding, day care for young parents to work or study, job training, community development or other programs to reduce incarceration.    

Misconceptions about Muslims in Prison

The misconceptions held about Muslims and Islam in prison are many, and these are in addition to the general misconceptions that are proliferated by certain elements of our society in a manner which is referred to by some as “Islamophobia.”  Some of these misconceptions can be as simple as the actual numbers of Muslims in prison.  Yet even that simple misconception can feed into a larger and more dangerous misconception which is that prisons are breeding grounds for terrorism and radicalization.   

One particular area of focus is that is used a scare tactic is the number of incarcerated Muslims and the rates of conversion to Islam.  Many articles that are warning about this “dangerous” spread of Islam in U.S. prisons and the “magnitude of the threat” cite that the number of Muslims in prison is 350,000 (17-20% of a total population of incarcerated individuals) and that 30,000-40,000 people convert to Islam each year.  Many of these articles cite the 2003 testimony of Dr. Michael Waller before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security Senate Committee.  A reading of that transcript shows that Dr. Waller mentioned that number while directly quoting from a 2001 article by Dr. Siraj Islam Mufti, Islam in American Prisons.  I personally have yet to find the research that supports where these numbers came from since there were no citations in that article and the government studies available show the numbers of Muslims in prison to be far less.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) own census in 2004 of their 150,000 prisoners show that 9,000 (6%) identified as being Muslim.  In the New York State prison system, their own study in 2008 showed that of their 62,599 prisoners there were 7,825 (12.5%) who identified as being Muslim.  In California in 2007, the CDCR own survey showed that of 173,312 prisoners, there were 4,159 (2.4%).  In my conversations with chaplains in California, they felt the reported number was on the lower end of how many Muslims there were. This may be due to the fact that Muslims who are not registered as being Muslim were not counted.    

I mention this to show that a simple fact of how many Muslims are actually in prison is

not taken seriously.  Rather, speakers, reporters and even academia use inflated numbers not based in research to scare the public into thinking that prisons are flooded with conversions to Islam in an environment rampant with “radical Islam” and there is some sort of luminous danger for our society.  Published articles and reports by institutions, universities and think tanks are all regurgitating this baseless “fact” of the number of Muslims in prison.  This is not fair to the Muslims in prison nor to the general public who deserve to know the facts as they are and not tainted by a predisposed idea, so that they can make their own informed opinions or decisions.  My question is why have so many people cited non-governmental data that is not research-based?  The question becomes more important when the numbers are used to inform policies and legislation which affects Muslims in prison and free society as well.  The reality is that Islam is growing in prisons and for the majority, it is a factor that actually helps them become better people.  

Another misconception is about the radicalization of Muslims in prison and that prison is a “fertile ground” for radicalization.  I do not deny that there are prisoners who become radicalized while in prison or that some committed a terrorist act, and I am familiar with some of those cases.  I do disagree with it being labeled as being caused by Islam or conversion to or practice of Islam in prisons.  In his research on the subject of radicalization in prisons, Dr. Mark S. Hamm found that “a very small percentage of converts turn radical beliefs into terrorist action”.  Radicalization is a very complex societal ill that makes itself manifest in all sectors of society, prison included, but Muslims in prison should not be singled out and made to seem as if it is an epidemic (which is what many article do and cite the dubious rates of Muslims in prison).    I once asked one of our students in the Federal prison system if he ever heard a prisoner speak out committing terrorist acts and he said, “I have been Muslim in prison over 20 years and I never heard one person make such comments.”  

One thing I note about some of the studies on Muslims who are accused of being radicalized in prison is that some of those inmates come to prison with already having a preconceived notion and misinformation about Islam.  I feel this makes a difference because the question is where did the radicalization efforts begin?  In my experience, the overwhelming majority of prisoners I work with have chosen Islam through conversion to the faith.  Of our total student population in Tayba Foundation, only 10% were born Muslims.  The majority of our students (70%) have converted while in prison and 20% converted in free society.  I find this significant because the majority of our students are coming to Islam and do not have any previous instruction or culture dictating to them what the “true Islam” is.  Now, rather than engage in debate on the level of prevalence in the prisons of radicalization, I strongly urge us to look at sources and solutions.  

One of the greatest sources of the process of radicalization and misuse of the religion will be a sound Islamic education.  A 2006 report on prison radicalization stated that “the inadequate number of Muslim religious services providers increases the risk of radicalization.”  In my work educating prisoners on Islam for the last 14 years, I have found time and time again that there is a great deal of lack of access that prisoners have to religious material, particularly a set curriculum of studies, and more importantly, lack of teachers to clarify what they are reading.  The Tayba Foundation conducted a survey and found that the number one religious need of Muslims in prison was access to curriculum and teachers.  It is for this reason that Tayba Foundation began its program for Islamic education by distance and correspondence and is committed to maintaining this service to Muslim prisoners.  

Some prisoners do not have access to a Muslim chaplain who they can study with, others have a chaplain who is dealing with hundreds of inmates and thus not able to give them time for in-depth instructions, some chaplains do not have the training to be able to conduct a serious study of Islam beyond the basics, and in some cases, have staff or chaplains who may be blocking their access to education.  A number of times I have had to replace books sent to inmates because chaplains returned the material to us or staff had thrown the student’s books in the garbage. In those cases we do not get involved in the civil rights violations and rather refer them to other organizations who specialize in that area.  We merely facilitate religious education by providing the material and instruction and, when needed, replace those materials for our students.  One chaplain who returned our material to us and told me that he could shut our distance learning program down if he wanted to.  I responded politely that he had no authority to do so and that the inmates’ access to religious education was guaranteed by the Constitution by the First Amendment and further at the state and federal levels, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) passed by Congress in 2000.  I will close this paragraph by saying that the majority of chaplains that I have worked with, whether Muslim or representing another faith, are dedicated to facilitate learning and betterment for the prisoners they work with.

Through the power of proper Islamic education, I have seen time and time again how knowledge can prevent any threat of radicalization and actually engender harmony in prisons and even beyond the walls.  One of our students who studied Islam seriously even before joining our distance learning program, recounted to me an example of this.  He said that when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred, five of six prison yards in one institutions had Muslims who were showing signs of joy and shouting.  One of the guards asked this student why that was and he responded that the one yard who did not react in that way had group of Muslims who were studying Islam seriously and teaching others the correct religion of Islam.  

In another instance related to me by one of our students, a Jewish prisoner came to the Muslims to seek protection from the White Supremacists.  In some prisons, the White Supremacists are especially powerful and many minorities, particularly Jewish prisoners, are at risk of being attacked.  I have heard accounts of Jewish inmates tattooing swastikas on themselves to prevent attacks from the White Supremacists.  One of my students in prison was approached by a Palestinian inmate who brought the Jewish inmate to the Muslim community for protection.  That in and of itself is a story of peace, but it goes further.  The Jewish inmate said that he would be willing to pay the “jizya” to the Muslims for protection from the White Supremacists.  The “jizya” is a form of payment by non-Muslims to a Muslim government for protection but a system that is not used by Muslim governments today.  In any case, this Muslim student told him there was no need for payment and that all he had to do was exercise in public (on the yard) with the Muslims.  This would cause the White Supremacists to believe that the Jewish inmate was Muslim and therefore would not attack him for fear of instigated a “war” with Muslims.  This is the result of a Muslim inmate knowing his religion properly and preventing the misappropriation of Islamic concepts to be used for improper means.  

In the absence of that proper education and guidance, some inmates who choose Islam in prison have influences of what is referred to a “Prison Islam” or “Prislam.”  This refers to the idea that some Muslims are practicing the faith with innovations in belief or practice that come out of the prison environment.  One major influence that causes “Prislam” is the gang culture which pervades the prisons in the United States.  Two aspects of gang culture is the structure of the gang which includes a leader (“shot caller”) and tattoos.  

In many prisons that have a Muslim population, one may find that the community appoints a leader to lead the prayers and offer guidance to the community.  While some prison institutions do not allow an inmate to act as the official religious leader for other inmates, one survey found that over half do.  The fear that institutions have is that the position of religious authority could be abused and taken as a route to act as nothing more than a gang-leader for the Muslim inmates at a particular prison.  This is a valid concern that I recognize as I had one of our students complain that their community chose a former gang-leader to be their “amir” only one month after he became Muslim.  The fear in this situation is clear.  You have someone who just became Muslim and could potentially make decisions that affect the safety or lives of other Muslim, other inmates or even staff.  The Muslims who support this “amir” system will then take verses of the Quran and Hadith out of context to justify the need for a leader and the obligation of the entire community to pledge allegiance to him (bay’ah) and then obey his every command.  Part of our work through Tayba is to shed light on how the religious texts are being misused and abused to perpetuate a false system which sometimes included the implementations of the Islamic penal code (hudud) in a vigilante-type method, which is completely unacceptable.  There are times when the Muslim inmates may justify a crime, such as an attack on another prisoner, as being permissible due to the fact that it is a hudud implementation.  At the same time, there are institutions who recognize and work with the “appointed Muslim leader” and many times the person is very well-balanced and dedicated to following true Islam and the rules and regulations of the prison.  One thing I would suggest to policy makers for prisons is that rather than negate the “Inmate Imam” position for fear of it undermining the security of the prison, if those appointed leaders are trained properly, they could facilitate many of the religious needs of the communities they are already currently serving.  This has a benefit of ensuring that inmates are receiving proper religious education and practice while in prison and reduces the load on budgets that would be needed to hire outside Imams.     

Another example is the prevalence of Muslims getting tattoos while in prison and having those tattoos sometimes incorporate Islamic themes or Arabic calligraphy.  While some Muslims simply disregard the Islamic prohibition of tattoos, others justify the practice citing that the Hadith forbidding the practice only spoke of “women who tattoo” and thus men who tattoo are exempt.  This interpretation can only be perpetuated when there is a lack of proper Islamic scholarship available to the Muslims in prison.  I must stress though, that these examples are to show what happens in isolated incidents due to a lack of knowledge and it is by no means the status quo of Muslims in prison.  There are many stories of prisoners being upstanding members of their communities, both inside the prisons and out.  

Muslims in prison are at the forefront of a number of programs to help others.  A number of major legal precedents for prisoner rights have had Muslim inmates at the forefront.  A number of successful inmate-led rehabilitation groups have been founded by Muslims and many Muslims facilitate other successful programs.  One of these such programs was co-founded by two Tayba students who then went on to establish it as a non-profit organization after their release and now have a contract for a transitional house with the State of California, an office building given to them rent free by the city the organization is run in, and one of the former prisoners sits on the Human Relations committee of that city.  I have heard stories of our students resolving conflicts in the prison that would otherwise turn into full-blown prison “wars.”  

Some of our students, upon release, have gone into starting their own businesses, teaching, non-profit work, and graduate school.  They have established families and work with the communities they live in, both the Muslims and non-Muslim communities.  The potential that is there is endless and it is a constant reminder to me of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) that, “People are like ores, like the ores of gold and silver, the best of them before Islam (jahiliyya) are the best of them in Islam if they gain understanding (fiqh).”  Yes, there are people who have lived an age of ignorance, but does that mean we give up on them?  Is that the approach that the Prophet Muhammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam) took when he made a prayer for the guidance of ‘Umar, a man who worshipped idols, buried his own daughter alive and wanted to kill the Prophet?  It was that potential that someone saw in Malcolm Little while he was in prison and aided him on his journey for knowledge.  He would later become El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, one of the greatest figures in the spread of Islam in the United States and who helped so many others out of the darkness of ignorance.  

I firmly believe in the power of education in dramatically transforming the dynamics of the prisons in the United States today.  There are men and women who find themselves with the time and space to learn, and with the proper tools, can achieve great things.  For those who will be returning to their communities, they could be equipped with the information, confidence and steadfastness that education provides.  Islamic education should also be viewed as a springboard to other forms of education, which we at Tayba always encourage and, when able, support financially.  One amazing story is that of Ahmed, which I will close with.

Ahmad called me once to relate his story of learning the prayer times he studied in our FIQH 101 course.  It is based on learning the movement of the sun and how to measure the shadows and look at the celestial signs to know when the prayer times of the five daily prayers.   He said he never even recognized or thought about the movement of the sun and it’s effect on the shadows.  He said after he listened to the lectures on the CD we provided, he went out to measure the shadow at noon for Dhuhr prayer.  He said the measurements did not work for him.  He went back and listened to the lecture four or five times and then went out the next day to measure the shadow.  He said he got the measurement process right and was able to see dhuhr time entered as the sun passed the meridian.  I asked him how it felt to witness that.  He said, “I have been Muslim 17 years and it felt to me like the first day I became Muslim.” But the change doesn’t stop there.  He said after measuring the shadows and journaling their times, he began looking around at the flora and fauna on the yard and documenting that.  

From there he began studying physics, subscribing to astronomy journals and is now assisting Tayba in developing our Introduction to Astronomy course designed for inmates.  I told Ahmad that one of the visions I had for the Astronomy course was that the students would move from looking at the confines of their prison and look up to the heavens above them and seek freedom in understanding them.  Even before making it a course, Ahmad had come upon that realization just from the initial lessons about the prayer times.  I also told him that his track of learning mimicked the track of the Muslim scientists of the past who began studying science to learn their religious obligations such as the prayer times, the Qibla (direction of the Ka’bah), and laws of inheritance which led to advancements in astronomy, spherical trigonometry, algebra among other sciences.  Ahmed went from learning the prayer times, to observing nature to learning physics and now teaching others in prison.  

I also asked Ahmad if he knew of the Birdman of Alcatraz, and he said that story changed his outlook on life.  I came to know of the Birdman (Robert Stroud) when I began raising birds while in middle school and high school and read about his life and studied his book on bird diseases.  Robert Stroud became an authority in canary diseases all while confined in federal prison turning his cell into a collection of bird cages and lab, complete with microscope and other tools needed to study disease.  I asked Ahmad what caused him to be impacted by Robert Stroud’s story.  He said that he changed his outlook on confinement from that point on.  Previously, he looked at his life sentence as a method to confine him from all freedom but after learning of Robert Stroud, he realized that there were things that he did not have to give up the freedom of other things, such as being a father.  He became more involved in the lives of his children.  Ahmad now is registered for a course on ornithology (the study of birds) and studying the science of Reciting the Quran (tajwid) with a tutor through Tayba.  Remember, even a caged bird can sing.       

We owe it to prisoners, both religiously and as a civic duty, to provide the resources they need on their journey of seeking knowledge help them bring out the potential they have.  We at the Tayba Foundation are doing our best through private donations to make education available for prisoners.  Our main focus is on Islamic education, but we also assist when possible to help our students pursue other degrees or certificates.  We pray to continue to be able to provide this education and we look forward to collaborating with other organizations focused on making education available to prisoners.    

Rami Nsour

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