Why American Inmates Are Converting to Islam? Growing faith in US Prisons

by birtanpublished on July 9, 2020

OhOhit's time for afternoon prayers and theMuslim inmates in this California stateprison are doing what was once forbiddenhaving an Islamic worship service peoplecouldn't gather in groups to teach and

Do practices of religion of the 3832inmates at Solano prisonthe chaplain estimates about fivepercent are practicing Muslims theprison doesn't track religious identitypartly because it's so fluid and

Religious expression is a barometer forhow Islam has evolved within the USpenitentiary system hey guys I'm Shireenand today we've travelled to Solanoprison in Vacaville California toexplore how the world's fastest-growing

Religion has had to fight to find a homein prisonwhen I became Muslim I was given a setof principles do this don't do that whenin doubt don't that's Jessie Burlesonwho people here know as Hasani he's been

In prison for 31 yearsHasani is one of the practicing Muslimsat Solano prison and they're part of themillions of people behind bars in theus in fact the United States has thelargest prison population in the world

The more than 23 million people it hadincarcerated by the end of 2017 weremore than any other developed nationthat number includes inmates at federalstate and county prisons and it'sgrowing in a place where you're housing

Meals and recreation time is highlyconstrained by rules finding a way topractice your faith can be difficultthese inmates have figured out a way toinfuse their faith into their sentencesone of the things that started me

Seeking something different was I waslooking at the people that were aroundmewho were older than I was who had beenin prison longer than me and who hadbeen on that same negative

Self-destructive path and me not beingsatisfied with what I was seeing in themand at that time I started going toreligious services it didn't matter ifit was Muslim Christian and Jewish Iwent seeking a better way and I believed

In God so I know that the only way I wasgonna change was through God he's justone of the Muslims that solano chaplainMuhammad Ali interacts with on a dailybasis Ali is an imam who spent fouryears at this prison helping people like

Hassan II explored their faith hebelieves it can be an important part oftheir rehabilitation religion isimportant to inmates because it connectsthem to something bigger than theirtheir circumstance you have people who

You know where you're here in prison andthere's a lot of things you can'tcontrolwithsure you're eating with it's your livingcondition

It really helps human beings feelessence of connectedness to somethingbeyond what's what's right in front ofthem as long as journey andPenitentiary's has been complicated byprison culture and legal challenges

Though nationally Muslims make up 1% ofthe US population that number isexpected to double by 2050 some of thatgrowth specifically comes from inmatesconverting to Islam behind bars Islam isknown for having a particularly strong

Presence in prisons in fact more peopleconvert to Islam per capita than anyother religion nationwide Muslims makeup 10 to 15% of prisoners Ali even saidhe has one to two inmates convert toIslam monthly so that's not his goal

What makes those statistics resonatemore is knowing how difficult it was toget Islam accepted as a recognizedreligion within some prisons the prisonadministration through their custodyofficers wouldn't allow groups of

Muslims that congregate over three andwhen they did they would break theywould break them up that's Abdul RaufNasir and he spent 30 years using hisIslamic faith to help inmates andcorrectional institutions he considered

It social justice work and an activepart of his faith back when he startedin the 1970s he says the prison systemwas full of subtle discriminationagainst Muslims some Muslim inmates atthis prison sued in 1996 for greater

Access to religious services theirdemands included hiring a full-timeMuslim chaplain and the ability toattend Friday prayers without penaltieslike demerits for leaving workeventually they did receive a full-time

Imam and their other demands prisonofficials dispute this account they sayMuslim inmates were never denied accessto their religion and instead theconstraints were reflective of staffingand organizational issues that were

Resolved nationwide the legal pushescontinue today the 2013 report says thatMuslims submitted the most religiousdiscrimination complaints out of anyother religious group in prison Islamand Muslim

Organizations in prisons for the mostpart seem to be powerful because they'vebeen there a long time they havechallenged the status quo of the prisonsystem itself legally and physicallythat quality of questioning power is

Easily identifiable with one of thereligions most notable converts MalcolmX his narrative is prominent and so thatattracts people toward Islam and thenthe reformative value that they find inthat the hope that it gives that I can

Survive in prisonMalcolm survived in prison Malcolm X'slegacy still resonates today more than50 years after his death while serving aprison sentence then named Malcolmlittle converted to the Nation of Islam

In 1952 he found mainstream Islam yearslater and felt it was much more raciallyinclusive in the nation but as Muslim wewill be Muslims I will try and teach thereligion of Islam among the footballNegroes and make them listen

Aside from spiritual guidance and theability to change your life aroundanother reason Nasir says I'mincarcerated people are drawn to thefaith is for another reason entirely howprisons are organized a central

Organizing principle in prison iscontaining the threat of violenceinmates are housed and classifiedaccording to the risk of violence theypose here at Solano it means are houseddormitory-style

Those that pose a higher risk or housethemselves like this with armed guardsin their downtime the crew that inmatesspend time with matters because they'rethe ones that also offer protection sowhat does any of this have to do with

Practicing Islam in prisonwell Nasir explains that your brothersin the faith can actually help protectyou behind bars and that source ofsupport transcends race Islam doeschallenge the strict rules of race in

Prison because if a person of anotherethnic group besides African Americacomes a Muslim then he's embraced inIslamic community and he's not onlyembraced he's protected from outsidepressures that other groups may place

Against themand being in prison isn't necessarilythat type of situation to whereyou know you need to join a group to besafethat's not hasn't been my experience but

I would say being a part of a communityin prison is definitely beneficial inthat regard what he is really describingis support and the support thatincarcerated Muslims require isdifferent than their free brethren in

Fact there are several things aboutprison that changed how Islam ispracticed there's no core uh nap no callto prayer from your cell phone and beingMuslim here is about survival in acompletely different way than it is

Outsideit does afford some opportunity forinmates to think about theirrehabilitation think about meaning inlife think about who they want to be asa person while here or when leaving here

Just because religion might help somepeople survive prison doesn't meanthey'll continue the practice afterreleaseNasir seen people let go of the faithwhen they get out but Hasani who's just

Days from release has his sights set onmaking Aslam most important journey forMuslims the pilgrimage we called hudgeso I think for me that making the Hajjas as one of my goals primary goals if Ikeep that as a primary goal that I will

Be successful and not only standing onthe path but doing everything that Ineed to do in order to get off the wallsave some money and make the Hajj Ilearned so much about incarceration inthis story if you want to learn more

Check out ear Hustle the podcast out ofSan Quentin prison in the meantime don'tforget to Like share and subscribe andlet us know in the comments what prisonstories you want us to cover next

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