Islam, Peace and Prison

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, while talking on Meet the Press about President Obama’s faith being Christian said, “He’s always been a Christian.”

But the really right answer is what if he is (Muslim)? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Mr. Powell went on to speak about a photo essay he’d seen which showed a mother at the grave of her son, who had served in Iraq and been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

eyesHis tombstone had the crescent and star of the Islamic faith. The young man, Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, was an American who had given his life for his country. In spite of such examples of patriotism and calls for tolerance, stereotypes about the Muslim faith and those that practice it, especially those in prison, are buried deep in the American psyche.

The Gallup Poll of the Muslim World estimates there are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, which is about 22% of all people on earth. If it continues at its present rate of growth, those who identify as Muslims will bypass Christianity (holding steady at 33%) by the middle of this century. A survey by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research said that close to 2 million Muslims attend prayer in U.S. mosques.

They also found that in one recent 5 year period, the number of mosques grew by 25 percent and the people worshiping in them rose by 300 percent. With one of the largest prison populations in the world, per capita, it is not surprising that people practicing or converting to Islam in America’s prisons has also risen over the last 50 years. Most people imprisoned in the U.S. are eventually released back into the community. If a large portion of them are Muslim, how they believe, act and practice their faith and our reactions to their faith, affects us all.

“I’m not a terrorist or violent. I’m Muslim,” says inmate Kalain Hadley at Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) in Coalinga, California. “My God and the Islam I practice has nothing to do with killing innocent people or suicide. The Koran says to only fight to protect oneself. Jihad means ‘struggle’, an internal struggle with self, not something political or violent.”

The program manager for Hartford Seminary’s Islamic Chaplaincy Program, which is the only accredited program of its kind in the U.S., says she has had to deal with such prejudicial views about Islam throughout her career. Ms. Mumina Kowalski was the first contracted Islamic female chaplain in Pennsylvania. She worked at a women’s facility for 8 years and says, “We still experience a lot of prejudice. It’s tough. We use to get criticism about inmates because they were Muslim, as opposed to other inmates being criticized strictly for their behavior and not their religious beliefs.”

John E. Colbert, another inmate at PVSP, claims, “Mainstream Islam doesn’t believe in terrorism. It’s against the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. The radicals have moved away from the Koran and Muhammad’s example and drifted towards tribalism, culture, and nationalism. One of the verses in the Koran says, ‘I made you as nations and tribes to learn from each other, not to fight one another.’ Islam recognizes all religious faiths, including the prophets Abraham, Jesus and Moses.”

Harry Dammer, Professor of the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Scranton points out that, “We forget that Islamic inmates have been recruiting each other in prison for almost 50 years since Malcolm X and his colleagues brought it to the forefront as a prison religion. Only now, with the fear of terrorism, are people concerned about the abuse of the faith (Islam) after release. We also forget that looking back at prison riots over the last 40 or so years, you can see that in fact, the Muslim inmates helped in numerous instances to quell the prison riots and keep the lid on escalating violence. I can say from my research that prison is just like general society. There are people in prison who are sincere in their religious faith and those that are not.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell

The word “Islam” is defined as “surrender into God’s will”. “Allah” is simply another word for “God” and is close to the same words Jesus used for God in his native tongue. An “Imam” is “someone who leads others in prayer”. The 5 Pillars or “tenets” of Islam are: faith or belief in the oneness of God; daily prayer (5 times); concern for and giving assistance to the needy; purification through fasting (Ramadan); and at least 1 pilgrimage to Makkah (the hajj), for those that are able.

The former Muslim chaplain at PVSP, Imam Michael Salaam, has been in the faith since 1971. He grew up in Memphis Tennessee and had always attended New Salem Baptist Church. When he converted to Islam, he says his mother “almost went into shock”. He remembers her saying, “Are you insane?! Are you crazy?!” Her initial reactions didn’t last. “After about 5 years, she saw my life change,” he fondly recalls. “I got a steady job and was helping raise my kids.

One day she came up to me and said, ‘Come here, son. What is this stuff you say you’re in?’ I said, ‘It’s Islam Mom.’ She said, ‘Well . . . do you think you could get your brothers into that stuff?’ She had seen the positive effect Islam had on me through those years. I think it also helped her practice her own faith more deeply when she realized that Islam wasn’t ritualistic to me, it had become my substance; my essence. Muslim means that nature or that soul in each of us. Once that soul or entity submits to Allah or God, he or she is Muslim.”

Five years ago the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which records prisoners’ religious preferences, said that 5.5 percent of the federal inmate population were some type of Muslim. It is believed that a much higher percentage of state and county inmates are Muslim (where religious preferences are not always recorded), due to the larger number of African-Americans in such facilities. Although those who are or have become Muslims come from all ethnic, social and economic backgrounds, the Associated Press says that 30 percent of the nation’s Muslims are black.

“Allah is everywhere,” claims inmate Kevin Wilson. “I don’t know exactly why, but it (Islam) resonates. Maybe it’s because it’s a form of rehabilitation. It’s something we are choosing to do, as opposed to being imposed. If you follow the principles and tenets of Islam you can do nothing but be rehabilitated. You have to be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself hard questions and have that personal talk. It may hurt, but you’re going to find out who you are, what you were and where you’ll end up.”

Speaking of the incident he says changed his life, Kalain Hadley says, “I had just been in a fight and was sitting alone with a torn shirt. A guy came and sat next to me. He started talking about Allah and invited me to Friday service. I wasn’t interested in religion at all. I said I’d go just to get rid of him. I went and listened and have been showing up to listen for 4 years now. Imam Michael Salaam said what I need to hear and he is an honorable man.”

Whether these men’s change in belief and conversion to Islam will have a permanent positive effect on their behavior and how they live their lives, is still out with the jury. Kris Rosenberg in Can People Change says, “Faith in human transformation is a phenomenon basic to our culture. We join Alcoholics Anonymous with the hope that we can become sober citizens. And sometimes it works. We can keep faith in the possibility of transformation and still be skeptical of quick-change artists with big payoffs.”

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 600,000 prisoners are released each year and that almost 70 percent of them have alcohol and drug problems. Within three years, about two-thirds are rearrested and 50 percent return to prison. In a report by Florida State University researcher Dan Mears, which was funded in part by the National Institute of Justice, it was found that there is no hard evidence that “faith-based” or religious programs really work or cut down on recidivism rates.

Such reports do not dampen the spirits of Imam Michael Salaam. He believes there is not enough support for those released or solid communities to which they can return and there are few programs that exist within the prison gates. As a sponsor of a non-denominational and multi-faceted program for inmates at PVSP called the Impact Program (which is co-facilitated by Rev. Deborah Johnson from Inner Light Ministries, along with an inmate council of long-time residents), the Imam has seen the positive effects and transformations that can and do take place when such comprehensive modalities are employed. “They have to come to it with some sincerity though and with an open heart to learn and reform their life,” he insists. “There are many successes.”

There are some studies that confirm that change is possible. An Arizona Inmate Recidivism Study found that, “Rehabilitation program involvement was found to reduce recidivism by 25% after two years of release. A higher level of inmate program involvement correlates with a greater reduction in recidivism. High program involvement will reduce recidivism by 35 percent or more. The greatest reductions in recidivism occur for those who are involved in a program and serve ten years or more. Inmates released to supervision record significantly lower recidivism rates than do comparable inmates released without supervision.”

A number of programs for Muslim’s released from prison are scattered across the country, but very few of them combine all of the factors that have been shown to cut down recidivism and help people stay the course. “When the Nation of Islam was the dominant factor in the prisons,” says Imam Michael Salaam, “I think the success rate was better because you had one influence, one voice and when the guys came out there was a community there. It was a coordinated effort. Now, with different schools of thought, there is some fragmentation. There’s no real group representing all the divisions.”

This concern with fragmentation and groups that cause conflict in prison are echoed by Ms. Kowalski. “Some people use a fronting of religion as Muslim, but it is really negative and simply a tool to rebel against the system. This type of ‘Islam’ requires no personal transformation. They use it to form an identity, which can be detrimental because they don’t practice or look at their own issues. That is another reason why it is so important to have trained chaplains that understand these divisions.”

Once people get out of the penitentiary, they face the same lack of coordinated services that often exist inside. A report in 2004 to the Annie E. Casey Foundation by Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya and Dr. Ihsan Bagby identified a number of programs and mosques that are trying to help formerly incarcerated Muslims. They found that “The city of Cleveland had the best Interfaith cooperative network, called Community Reentry, for reintegrating formerly incarcerated persons.”

Other programs include: ICNA Relief and United Muslim Movement Against Homelessness (NY); Crescent Social Assistance Agency (NJ); Masjid Ikhwa (NY); Muslim Women’s Help Network (NY); ILM Foundation (LA); Small Steps (LA); Husbah (CA); Muslim Community Center (SF); Free at Last (CA); Community Re-Entry (OH); Masjid al-Muminin (GA); Islamic Crisis Emergency Response System (GA); Masjid al-Haqq (MI); Muslim Family Services (MI); Mosque of Umar (IL); Masjid al-Fajr (IN); Inner City Muslim Center (IL) ; Prison Committee at Islamic Center (TX); Prison Prevention Program (TX); and Masjid Taleem Muhammad (TX).

“I saw a study once,” Imam Michael Salaam recalls, “done by a Christian. He wanted to know why Islam was growing in America. He looked at the media and other factors and discovered that most who converted did so based on them knowing another person who they respected; based on that person’s good behavior; how that person treated them; their compassion and love. The best invitation for Islam is your behavior. The Koran says, ‘God is good. All good comes from God.’

If there’s something that is going wrong in your life, check your own hands and see what you did to bring that about. That is the key, for them to see that Islam calls upon you to improve your life so it can be of service to other human beings. I believe every human being can change. Not everyone will change, but they can. Until we can put that sense of self-pride, responsibility and being of value to the men in prison, there won’t be any rehabilitation. You have to hit that chord with them. If Islam can make that man conscious and aware of his family, take care of his kids, become responsible and gainfully employed making honest money, that benefits everyone in our society. That’s what Islam is about . . . the awakening of a human being to his God-given potential.”

“Michael Salaam has a unique way of putting things,” says PVSP inmate John E. Colbert. “It reaches the core of your soul. He is someone I respect. I could hear the same thing from someone else, but until I heard it from Imam Michael, it didn’t sink in.”

When former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke about a 7-year-old Muslim-American child having the same right to dream of growing up to be president of the United States as any other kid in this country, he was presenting a vision of the potential that exists within our society, but has not yet been achieved. The reality of how American’s perceive and relate to their fellow Muslim citizens and their Islamic faith (those in prison and those without), is still embedded with stereotypes, prejudice, and ignorance. Whether these negative images are changed by people such as Imam Michael Salaam, General Collin Powell or the over 2 million Muslim’s in the U.S., remains to be seen.

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