Islamic Perspectives

ISLAM IN THE U.S. PRISONS - i

The following is an Interview with Dr. Mahmood A. Qazi, the Muslim Chaplain (Imam) at the Cambria County Prison, Ebensburg, PA, Cresson Secure Treatment Unit (CSTU), Cresson, PA, and Torrance State Hospital, Torrance, PA, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, USA. He has been preaching Islam to people in the US for more than thirty years. He is also the founding member and President of the Chicago-based Kazi Publications, Inc. (a non-profit organization), one of the oldest and the largest printers, publishers, and distributors of the Holy Qur'an and Islamic literature in North America, established in 1972.
1.   How did you become involved with the conversions within the prison community? How many people have you converted?
My first experiences with conversions to Islam outside of the prison setting were in the early 1970s, when I first immigrated to the United States. In 1972, I started Kazi Imports in Chicago, Illinois, which became Kazi Publications, Inc., a non-profit organization. During this time, I came in contact with the Nation of Islam, whose followers became our biggest customers for the Holy Qur'an and Islamic literature. Because of their exposure to the true Islamic literature, some of them started moving away from the Nation of Islam teachings and converting to true Islam.? My next experiences were in the military setting beginning in the early 1980s. In 1978, I became a member of the Northbrook Islamic Cultural Center (NICC), where I came to know Mr. Nizar Hassan, the Principal of NICC Sunday school, who became my mentor. I was really impressed by his method of teaching and preaching Islam to non Muslims. In January 1982, I started accompanying him as a volunteer to the United States Great Lakes Naval Training Center on Sundays, where he used to teach Islam to naval recruits. That is where I saw young recruits accepting Islam almost every Sunday. The maximum number of recruits that accepted Islam on one Sunday was 23. I volunteered at the Great Lakes for eleven years.
My experiences with conversions within the prison system began in 1993 after I moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was here that I began to preach Islam as a volunteer at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Loretto, PA, the Sate Correctional Institution (SCI), Cresson, PA, and Cambria County Prison at Ebensburg, PA. I continued as a volunteer till October 2003, when I was offered a part time Muslim Chaplain (Imam) position at the South West Secure Treatment Unit (SWSTU), Blairsville, PA, and also at the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit (CSTU), Cresson, PA. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania closed the SWSTU in June 2006. I continued to provide Islamic services to the juveniles at CSTU, Cresson, PA.? In 2004, I was offered a Muslim Chaplain's position at the SCI Laurel Highland, PA, and SCI Somerset, PA, where I served as an Imam till June 2007. Currently, I am providing Islamic Services as a Muslim Chaplain (Imam) at the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit (CSTU), Cresson, PA, Torrance State Hospital, Torrance, PA, and as a volunteer at the Cambria County Prison, Ebensburg, PA.???
 
2. Can you briefly describe the prevalence of Islam in the prison systems?
According to the Chief of the Federal Bureau of Prison's Chaplaincy Services Branch, approximately 9,000 inmates, or about six percent of the federal inmate population, sought Islamic religious services in 2003.[1] These inmates can be classified in four groups: Sunni, Shiite, Nation of Islam, and Moor Science Temple of America.[2] Nearly 85% of inmates identify themselves as Sunni or Nation of Islam; less than one percent identify them as Shiite.[3] A 2006 report found that Muslims, including Nation of Islam and Moor Science Temple, are believed to have the high rates of prison-based conversions.[4]?The top religious services that appear to be run by prisoners for prisoners are (in rank order): Muslim Religious Services, Moorish Science Temple of America, Native American Services, Nation of Islam Services, Asatru Services, Islamic Services, Wiccan Services, Judaism Services, Sunni Muslim Services, and Jum'ah Services.?
The Bureau of Prisons provides Muslim inmates with religious services through chaplains, contractors and volunteers. Currently, there is a severe shortage of Muslim chaplains for Muslim inmates, with one Muslim chaplain for every 900 Muslim inmates.[5] In 2003, Harley Lappin, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, stated that of their 231 full-time chaplains, only 10 were Muslim Imams, and of their over 12,000 contractors and volunteers nationwide, only 56 contractors and 80 volunteers provide religious services to Muslim inmates.[6]??
 
3. What are some of the factors, which make conversion to Islam in prisons different from conventional conversions?
In prisons, Islam spreads mostly through personal contacts of inmates both with the Muslim inmates and the Muslim Chaplains (Imams). The inmates have an easy access to Holy Qur'an and Islamic literature. With a lot of time at their hands they read a lot. It is a well known fact that the people, who are looking for the Truth, read the Holy Qur'an and understand it accept Islam much more easily. A typical example is that of Yusuf Islam (former Cat Stevens), who read the Holy Qur'an while in hospital and became a Muslim, and is now one of the top Muslim preachers in the world.?
In prison, religion is a hotly energizing force, and Islam is spreading fast. Even Muslim leaders and scholars say that the pace of prison conversions has surprised them, though national research on religion in prison is scarce. In what may be the most dramatic example, one researcher says the majority of inmates are Muslim at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex, the largest in the country.?
In prison, conversion - largely by other prisoners - is the source of Islam's spread. The prison movement, rooted in the Nation of Islam era of Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X, initially was mostly African-American. Now, although blacks still predominate, more Hispanics and whites are converting, too. Experts say the Nation's influence is waning, and Sunni and Shiite traditions are gaining ground.??
 
4. Given the prevalence of gangs in the prison societies, are there gangs based on religious lines? Do some people convert for protection or reasons other than faith?
When I first started work in the PA prison system, I was surprised, rather shocked, to learn that the Muslims in these prisons are called a "gang." However, with a prolonged exposure to and working with the Muslim inmates, I found  that it was not true. The Muslims inmates, because of Islamic tradition and culture, stick together, as they are taught that the Believers are brothers and one community (Ummah) under Almighty God. This gives other inmates, the staff and the management a false impression of Muslims as that of being some kind of a "gang," which is not true.?
Nearly half of the prisons in the U.S. report the existence of separate gangs for Muslim inmates. Some prison gangs adopt a form of Islam that incorporates values of gang loyalty and violence, so-called "Jailhouse Islam". These reports show that the Five Percenters are the single largest nationwide, followed closely by Nation of Islam and Fruits of Islam. Some gangs thought to be just ordinary street gangs are now posturing inside some prisons in some parts of the country as having an Islamic identity.??
Some Muslim inmates, when they arrive in prison, are already members of a particular gang. Others, however, start attending Islamic services for protection and eventually accept Islam. This phenomenon of temporary conversion to Islam for protection only has been labeled "Prislam" by the New York Police Department (NYPD).??
 
5.   On average, how many prisoners convert to Islam every year?
During my more than 20 years' tenure as a Muslim Chaplain (Imam) and volunteer in PA, I can say that the inmates do accept Islam on a regular basis, although I did not keep a count. ?An exact number of prison Muslim converts is not available. However, according to the Harley Lappin, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the percent of self-identified Muslim federal inmates has remained stable for nearly a decade, at a little less than 10,000 inmates or six percent of the federal inmate population. ??
 
6. Is there a typical kind of prisoner who converts?
Islam means peace. It offers freedom, justice and equality to all, irrespective of their color, race, creed, national origin or religion. Many converts to Islam are disenchanted with their current belief systems. Others, who lack strong belief systems, are seeking an answer to the spiritual emptiness and the need for self-realization that they are experiencing. They find in Islam the peace, the guidance, and the spiritual health that fulfills them.??
 
a.  Do more men, or women, convert to Islam?
In the U.S., women converts to Islam outnumber men converts four to one. Islam as a religion immensely improved the status of women and granted them many rights that the modern world has recognized only this century. Islam still has so much to offer today's woman: dignity, respect, and protection in all aspects and all stages of her life from birth until death in addition to the recognition, the balance, and means for the fulfillment of all her spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional needs. Female converts to Islam find a sense of self-respect and dignity in Islam that they are seeking.
Many Latina converts say that their interest in Islam comes from the fact that they do not want to be seen as sex objects anymore and are tired of the stereotype of the Latina women as portrayed by Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera. For many women, Islam is the solution to that dilemma.
 
b.  In the case of women who have converted, what are some of the drawbacks they face, e.g., are they allowed to cover their head (wear Hijab), if they so choose?
In federal prisons, Muslim women are allowed to exercise their right to wear Hijab (head cover) while in custody. Of course, there have been cases of female Muslim inmates not being allowed to wear Hijab. Recently, a Muslim woman filed suit due to the fact that she was forced to remove her Hijab when arrested.[7] However, I have not personally come across this issue in my tenure as an Imam at the state and/or county prisons.

Continued in the next issue

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2013 on page no. 20

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