ISLAM IN THE U.S. PRISONS!
Interview with Dr. M. A. Qazi who is President/CEO of US based OVERSEAS CONSULTANTS, a multi-service company providing engineering, design and construction supervision to industrial, commercial and institutional clients.
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 Hasan, 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 Mr. Hasan 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 any one Sunday was 23. I volunteered at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center for more than eleven (11) 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 Sate Correctional Institution (SCI), Cresson, PA, Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Loretto, PA, and Cambria County Prison at Ebensburg, PA. I continued as a volunteer till October 2003.
In 2003, 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 SWSTU was closed in June 2006 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 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, and as a volunteer at the Cambria County Prison, Ebensburg, PA.
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 6 percent of the federal inmate population, sought Islamic religious services in 2003. These inmates can be classified in four groups: Sunni, Shiite, Nation of Islam, and Moor Science Temple of America. Nearly 85% of inmates identify themselves as Sunni or Nation of Islam; less than 1% identify them as Shiite. 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.
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. 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.
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 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, typical example being that of Yousaf Islam (ex-Cat Stevens), who read the Holy Qur’an while in hospital and became a Muslim, and is now one of the top most Muslim preachers in the world.
In prison, religion is a hotly energizing force, and Islam is spreading swiftly. Even Muslim leaders and scholars say they have been surprised by the pace of prison conversions, 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 out 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 nation under Almighty God, which 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 13 years’ tenure as a Muslim Chaplain (Imam) and volunteer in PA, I can safely 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 6% 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 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. However, I have not personally come across this issue in my tenure as an Imam at the state or county prisons.
7. From which ethnicity do the most people convert to Islam?
The greatest number of converts to Islam are African-Americans. And by the way, most of them are Sunni Muslims and not followers of the Nation of Islam. We are also seeing a steadily increasing number of Latino and white converts.
8. What is the prevalence of the Nation of Islam in prisons?
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, slightly over 2% of the total federal Muslim population identifies itself as following the Nation of Islam.
Personally, I have seen very few followers of the Nation of Islam, may be one member in a population of 100 at the SCI Laurel Highlands, PA and 2 members in a population of more than 250 at the SCI Somerset, PA.
9. In your opinion, what are the differences of the Nation of Islam versus other, more well-known versions of Islam?
Islam and the Nation of Islam are two separate religions. The only thing common between them is the jargon, the language used by both. Nation of Islam in fact is a misnomer; it should be called Farrakhanism, after the name of its propagator. The religion of Elijah Muhammad died with the man, because the officially and popularly elected successor of the Nation of Islam, W.D. Muhammad, integrated the Nation of Islam community with the Muslim community at large, following the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith of Prophet Muhammad, Sallallahu ‘alaihi wa Sallam. Initially, after Elijah Muhammad’s death, Louis Farrakhan joined W.D. Muhammad and gave his pledge of allegiance to him; he later rebelled and broke his oath with impunity, or without paying any expiation, and restarted the Nation of Islam, which has very few followers.
10. Have you found that faith helps the prisoners? What are the main reasons most of the converts chose Islam?
Islam is a binding force as a brotherhood. Muslim inmates in the prison systems stick to one another, help, guide and teach each other about Islam, peace, harmony and good manners. It improves their mental and spiritual state, in addition to creating a healthy surrounding in which they can live in peace and harmony with each other.
People are converting to Islam for a number of reasons: some do so for mostly personal reasons, while others become Muslims on the basis of the cultural, social and spiritual characteristics of Islam. The followings are some key aspects that draw many people, particularly Christians and Jews, to Islam:
Conversion to Islam is relatively simple, involving only Shahadah, the declaration of Faith: There is no God except Allah; Muhammad is Allah's Final Messenger. People find it much easier than a lengthy process of religious education and series of formal rituals.
Islamic supreme authority is the Holy Qur'an. It is brief and to the point, yet holds details of every subject related to the daily life on earth and beyond. With translations available in most modern languages now, the Qur'an is easy to read and straightforward to understand, making it simple for newcomers to comprehend.
Islam's Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) holds a paramount position in Islamic Faith. Yet he is not viewed as a god. His place in Islam is rather that of a man, a Messenger and a Servant of God. People therefore see the Prophet as a perfect example to follow, without having to aspire to some form of divinity.
Islam is monotheistic religion. It calls upon people to believe in one True God only. People are told in the Qur'an: "Say: He is Allah, He is One; The Self-Sufficient, The Eternal God; He begets not, nor was He begotten; There is none equal to Him." [The Holy Qur'an, Surah 112:1-4]. Many find the Christian concept of the Trinity confusing and thus the idea of One God appeals to them.
Also, the significance of Jesus for Muslims as a human and his important place in Islam as a prophet of God rather than as a divine figure appeals to those who find the Christian concept of the Trinity too confusing to understand or too difficult to believe in.
Islam's basic beliefs are relatively straightforward and easy to understand as well as to perform, compared with other religions fundamental precepts. For example, the Five Pillars of Islam: Shahadah, Obligatory Prayers, Fasting in the Month of Ramadan, Paying Zakat (Charity) to the poor and traveling to Makkah to Perform the Hajj; even the younger followers can comprehend them without any hardship or confusion.
Islam is the faith of equality and justice for all. God says in the Holy Qur'an: "O you, who believe, stand firmly for justice, as witnesses before Allah, even if it be against yourselves, or your parents or your (close) relatives, and whether (it be against) rich or poor. God can best protect both. Do not follow the desires of your hearts, lest you swerve (from the truth) and if you distort your testimony or decline to do justice, verily Allah is fully aware of all that you do." [The Qur'an, Surah 4:135]. This concept of equality is appealing to many who have been disenfranchised.
Islam's great civilization and rich history certainly has an attractive and intellectual appeal for many people. Converting to Islam means they also become part of the Muslim Ummah (nation), giving those who are outcasts in society a sense of belonging.
Islam's emphasis on the importance of family life and social value is one of the key aspects that attract men and women from various cultural backgrounds, particularly those serious about true and traditional family values and moral teachings.
Islam is not only a religion but also a complete way of life, where everything is detailed in the Holy Qur'an very clearly, and further explanation is available through the Hadith and Sunnah (sayings, teachings and actions) of Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him). Many find the guidance in everyday matters appealing.
Many of the prophets and stories found in the Bible, both the old (Torah) and the new testament (Injeel), such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah and the flood, the events in the life of Abraham and his sons, the Psalms of David and the kingdom of Solomon, the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt led by Moses, Jesus preaching the Injeel (Good News) to the world - are present in the Holy Qur’an as well. Christians and Jews who convert to Islam often comment that they are attracted to the Muslim faith partly because of its similarities to Christianity and Judaism in general; the common basis between the three great Abrahamic religions being One Almighty God (Allah).
11. Have any converts faced discrimination or have themselves discriminated against prisoners of other faiths in the prisons?
Because of media projection of Islam, especially after 9/11, there are suspicions about the Muslim community in the prison systems. The Muslims are watched very carefully and are no doubt sometimes victims of discrimination, both by the other inmates and the staff. Although there are ways to file grievances, most of the inmates are reluctant to file them because they are afraid of retaliation. Naturally, there is a reciprocal suspicion in Muslim inmates about the other inmates.
Religious discrimination in prisons, including the role of faith-based rehabilitative programs, was the subject of a recent briefing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is examining the topic as part of its annual report to Congress and President George W. Bush to be submitted later this year.
Speaking at this briefing, Abu Qadir Al-Amin, an Imam with the San Francisco Muslim Community Center (MCC), said that religious discrimination in prisons ranges from institutional rigidity to flagrant abuse. He noted “documented cases of racial intolerance along with religious intolerance that have involved Muslim Chaplains being escorted off of the institutional grounds in a very humiliating and demeaning manner."
I have a similar personal experience and I fully agree with Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin that the Muslim Chaplains (Imams) are not given the same respect that they deserve and which is tended to other members of the Chaplaincy department by the staff and the management of PA prison system.
12. Do most converts in prison keep up with Islam once they leave?
On release from a prison, the inmates are sent to a Halfway House, where they are allowed to practice their religion. It is generally recognized that the rate of recidivism among Muslims is low and a majority are far less likely to become repeat offenders. Sadly, however, after their release, only about 25% of them continue to pursue their Islamic practices with any regularity. One reason often cited is that 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. Another oft-cited reason is the lack of an Islamic community once outside the prison. Many who are locked up are often abandoned by their family and friends. When they are released, many are then shunned both the Muslim community and the public at large. These Muslims lack a support system as they reenter society after their release. About 70-80% of parolees come back to the prison because they cannot make it outside and are attracted by free food, free accommodation, and free medical assistance, in addition to other benefits, offered by the prison systems.
13. What are some of the major problems facing prisons in the United States today, specifically relating to religious freedoms in prison?
The Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood quite clearly that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. After all, religious freedom is the main aspiration that sent America’s founders searching for independence from England. This is also why the Framers included free exercise of religion in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
According to the First Amendment, the government may not establish a religion nor deny its citizens the right to freely exercise their religion. The Chaplaincy Department in each prison works tirelessly to defend the right of people to freely worship and exercise their religion. It is the duty of Federal Bureau of Prison and the Department of Corrections in each state to ensure that the fundamental right of each prisoner to exercise his religion is respected and unabridged.
Under the laws of the United States, the Muslim inmates are allowed to wear Kufi (prayer cap), pray at the appointed times, observe fasting during the month of Ramadan and enjoy at least a feast at the time of Eid-ul-Fitr (on completion of fasting during Ramadan) and/ or Eid-ul-Adha (on the Day after the day of standing at the plains of ‘Arafat during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to Makkah, Saudi Arabia.
14. Have you ever witnessed a Muslim marriage in prison?
As a Muslim Chaplain (Imam) at the State Correctional Institutions in Laurel Highlands and Somerset, Pennsylvania, I was a witness to three (3) Muslim marriages. As an Imam, I was not allowed to perform the marriage ceremony (Nikah), so an Imam from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, brought along by the bride’s family, performed the Nikah ceremony.
15. Are prison converts on average more or less orthodox in their belief than people born into the religion? In fact, do you find converts generally to be more observant?
According to my personal experience, about 50% of the Muslims at the SCI in Laurel Highlands, PA, and SCI, Somerset, PA, follow the traditional Islam according to Imam Abu Hanifah as practiced on the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent including Bangladesh, while the rest of the population follows the Shafi’i and Maliki schools of thought as practiced primarily in Saudi Arabia and in the other Middle East countries.
I have also found that the new converts are more sincere observants of Islam than the immigrants from Indo-Pakistan sub-continent, including Bangladesh, and the Middle East countries. Because the inmates read a lot of books on Hadith, they are usually strict followers of the Sunnah (the traditions of Prophet Muhammad Sallallah-o-‘alaihi wa Sallam).
Some of them earnestly try to learn the Arabic language so that they can read the Holy Qur’an, which was originally revealed by Almighty God (Allah) to Prophet Muhammad (Sallallah-o-‘alaihi wa Sallam) through Archangel Gabriel (‘Alaih-is-Salam) in the Arabic language. I personally taught five inmates at the SCI Somerset, PA, how to read the Holy Qur’an starting with Arabic Alphabet, using Yassar-nal-Qur’an (Holy Qur’an, Made Easy), published by Kazi Publications, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, United States of America, and by Kazi Publications, Lahore, Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Mahmood A. Qazi, the Muslim Chaplain (Imam) at the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit (CSTU) in Pennsylvania, United States of America, has been preaching people in the United States to Islam for more than thirty (30) years. Most of them revert to their original religion, i.e., Islam.
He began by volunteering to preach Islam to non-Muslims at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago, Illinois, and has since worked at many Federal and State Correctional Institutions in the United States.
He is also the founding member and Vice President of the Chicago based Waqf fi Sabilillah (a non-profit organization), Kazi Publications, Inc., one of the oldest and the largest printers, publishers, and distributors of the Holy Qur’an and Islamic literature in North America.
 U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, A Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Selection of Muslim Religious Services Providers, April 2004.
 The George Washington University and The University of Virginia, Out of the Shadows, October 2006, at http://www-tc.pbs.org/weta/crossroads/incl/Out-of-the-Shadows.pdf.
 U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Harley Lappin, Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Oct. 14, 2003, at http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=960&wit_id=2318.
 AP, Muslim Woman Sues for Being Forced to Remove Headscarf in US Jail, Dec. 6, 2007, at http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/12/06/america/NA-GEN-US-Muslim-Headscarf-Lawsuit.php.
Posted on 28 May 2008 by Webmaster