Islam in Prisons: A Coping Mechanism or Fuel For Terrorist Action?

Many people believe that the presence of Islam in prisons poses an inherent threat because it can lead to violent radicalization, but this is not a Muslim issue. This skewed view of Muslim prisoners evolved through the use of small amounts of anecdotal evidence.  Although Islam is the most popular religion for conversions in prison (80% of all conversions) there have been very few instances of terrorist activity (Waller, 2003). Instead, radicalization in prisons is fueled by a number of other circumstances independent of religion.

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Image from Rami Nsour’s article  “Islam and Muslims in the U.S. Prison System.”

To begin, prisons are inhospitable places where violence runs rampant with 21% of prisoners experiencing assault in a 6-month period from both other prisoners and staff (Wolff, 2009). In these harsh conditions, new prisoners find themselves lacking their traditional mechanisms of support, frequently making them more willing to adopt a radical belief system (Mulkahy et al., 2013). This, is combination with a lack of religious leaders available, exacerbates a prisoners risk of radicalization (Hamm, 2009). In the US particularly, the racial divides and violent atmosphere push many minority groups, in this case Muslim inmates, into either Muslim gangs or across racial lines into non-Muslim groups. It is here that prisoners become even more likely to be radicalized (Jones, 2014). These pressures however are not particular to Islam. In fact two notorious historical figures, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, developed their radical belief systems while incarcerated (Mulkahy, 2013).

One of the most utilized examples in the alarmist narrative about the rise of Islamic terrorism in prisons is the Jam’iyyat Ui-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) group that came out of Folsom prison in California. (Hamm, 2009). Folsom prison is a maximum-security prison where problematic inmates are sent. Here prisoners face terrible overcrowding, 40% of inmates have hepatitis C, there are no rehabilitation programs, and violent gangs run out of control. Kevin James, who was the leader of JIS, gained his following within this context. Members were excited by JIS because it provided an outlet for their rage about their current situation and the systems that they felt put them there. As one inmate involved in JIS put it, “When our back is against the wall, we will seek justice”(Hamm, 2009 pg. 674).

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Image from Max Whittaker’s series on Folsom Prison.

It is clear that there were many factors leading to the development of JIS that were not due to the Islamic religion itself. In fact, many studies have suggested that Islam does not post an inherent threat of radicalization in prisons (Mulkahy, 2013; Hamm, 2009). Rather, Islam was found to be a positive influence on prisoner’s transition, and ability to cope with the stresses of incarceration (Hamm, 2009).

In fact, at Folsom prison a man named Akil, who is currently serving a lifetime sentence for murder, found himself delving into Islamic religious texts. He says, learning about Islam “ taught me to have respect for others. It taught me to understand the true nature of humanity. It keeps me from doing the bad things of my past” (Hamm, 2009. p. 676).

Akil has gone onto develop a program called The Islamic Studies Program, which actually uses Islamic teachings to counteract the threat of radicalization. The positive effects of a program like this goes to show that Islam itself is not the underlying issue here.

The Islamophobia which surrounds Muslim prisoners, especially post 9/11 frequently leads to the mistreatment of Muslims by staff and other inmates creating a sense of insecurity surrounding prison life for Muslims (Liebling et al., 2011). It is not that this anecdotal evidence should be disregarded; it is to say that there is something more at play than Islam in radicalization. It is very important to investigate these fundamental causes if the root of the problem is to be addressed. One thing is for sure; marginalizing Muslim prisoners is certainly not the solution that is needed.

Work Cited

Hamm, M. S. (2009). Prison Islam in the Age of Sacred Terror. British Journal of Criminology, 49(5), 667-685. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp035 http://www.jstor.org/stable/23639185?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Jones, C. R. (2014). Are prisons really schools for terrorism? Challenging the rhetoric on prison radicalization. Punishment & Society, 16(1), 74-103. doi:10.1177/1462474513506482 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1462474513506482

Liebling A, Arnold H and Straub C. (2011). An Exploration of Staff–Prisoner Relationships at HMP Whitemoor: 12 Years On. London: UK Ministry of Justice National Offender Management Service.

Mulcahy, E., Merrington, S., & Bell, P. J. (2013). The Radicalisation of Prison Inmates: A Review of the Literature on Recruitment, Religion and Prisoner Vulnerability. Journal of Human Security, 9(1). doi:10.12924/johs2013.09010004 http://search.proquest.com/docview/1477980063?pq-origsite=gscholar

Waller, M. (2003). ‘Terrorist Recruitment and Infiltration in the United States: Prisons and Military as an Operational Base’, testimony before the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 14 October.

Wolf, N. (2007). The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Wolff, N. and Jing S. “Contextualization of Physical and Sexual Assault in Male Prisons: Incidents and Their Aftermath.” Journal of correctional health care : the official journal of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care 15.1 (2009): 58–82. PMC. Web. 1 Apr. 2017.

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9 thoughts on “Islam in Prisons: A Coping Mechanism or Fuel For Terrorist Action?

  1. This is a really interesting discussion of a topic which I think highlights the intersection of many systemic issues that American society faces today. As Lori Peek’s article “Muslim Self-Identities After 9/11” describes in detail, public fear and misunderstanding regarding Islam has increased drastically in recent years. Additionally, as we have seen through Mark Juergensmeyer’s book, Terror in the Mind of God, there are a lot of misconceptions about terrorism and its connection (or lack thereof) to Islam. Perhaps if more Americans were aware of the cases that you mention here like the Islamic Studies Program or the individuals such as Akil who find peace and salvation through their Muslim faith, we could work as a nation to reduce the divisive force of Islamophobia. I also find this topic of radicalization and Islamophobia within prisons really interesting because it is something that I had not really thought about before. I think you make a really good point about finding the true source of the problem of radicalization rather than simply blaming a religion with little evidence to back it up. The carceral state in America today has many problems, such as the harsh conditions, assault, and lack of support systems which you describe here. Additionally, the number of incarcerated citizens has skyrocketed since the 1980s and ’90s and these incarcerated citizens are disproportionately racial minorities. Within this troubling environment of the carceral state, it is interesting and necessary to think about the role of religion and the potential positive impacts it can have despite circumstances which push individuals towards radicalization.

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  2. This blog post seems to raise the question of the problems that come with generalizing a religion or a religious experience. Christian radicals can be just as dangerous and damaging as Muslim radicals but there does not seem to be the same fear that teaching Christianity in prisons will be a problem. For the vast majority or Muslims the religion is an uplifting helpful factor in their lives, therefore it only makes sense that the religion could help prisoners in bad situations.

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  3. I was really fascinated by your topic because very few people talk about religion in the context of incarceration. Moreover, you make an excellent point about the misconception of Islam causing violent radicalization in the prisons. I think this is another example of how the religion itself is misunderstood and is always used as a scapegoat because the American government cannot face the reality of its own failings and contributions to the escalation of terrorism in the world.

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  4. I found this post to be quite remarkable. I have often heard people discuss how “finding onself” in jail through religion is seen as therapeutic and reformative. However, if the religion they ‘find’ is not Christianity or Buddhism, there is a problem. I think the issue lies in the misconceptions and preconceived notions of what Islam is. Since 9/11, people have stated that the Quran promotes violence and terrorist acts. This stereotype circles back into prisons and this fear of islam might hinder the self discovery and development of many incarcerated people. Thank you for sharing such an insightful and well-researched post.

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  5. You make a really great point in that the fear of Muslim Radicalism in prisons is not always justified. A great deal of this fear comes from misconceptions of the religion based on events like 9/11. This is not a fair assessment of the religion as a whole. You state that islamophobia in prisons leads to mistreatment of the islamic prisoners. This may be entirely true, but I also think there is another larger issue that is influential here as well: the United States Prison System in general is one of violence and unfair treatment to not only muslims, but prisoners in general.

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  6. This is blog surfaces an overarching problem in our society: the overgeneralization of the Islamic faith. You make a great point that the conventional understanding is completely based on anecdotal evidence. It is rather unfortunate that our society views Islam as an inherently violent religion, and they completely ignore how violent Christianity is. It was really interesting to learn about the positive influence Islam has had on inmates. Moreover, it’s a perfect example that challenges the conventional understanding.

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  7. This article is very timely and possesses a lot of questions I believe more people should consider. I agree with your assessment that there are many unresolved fundamental issues within the prison system that creates this problem between Islamic radicalization and Islamophobia. Personally, I believe the inhumane treatment of prisoners leads to many unnecessary, problematic situations (but that’s another issue!). I did really enjoy learning about Akil and his ability to create a positive Islamic program within the suppressing prison system.

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  8. This article does a great job acknowledging the fact that prisons are an environment in and of themselves. In a prison population you’re dealing with a self-selecting portion of the population, many coming from similar backgrounds and with similar histories and connections. It makes sense that violence associated with Muslim prison groups would be high because it’s a group of people who in prison to begin with. The activity of the Aryan Brotherhood is not reflective of the activity of your local church. That is a very important point that I had yet to consider before reading this. If I had seen in the media a story on violence from Islamic prison gangs I would fall right into the narrative of terrorism without thinking that this is a unique population of individuals.

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  9. I find it very interesting how people often associate Islam with violence but do not do the same with other religions. It’s as if people assume that Islam is fundamentally violent. However, as your article demonstrates, inmates use Islam as a way of finding peace, in the same way that Christianity or Buddhism is used. What can we do to dissociate Islam from terror or violence in the eyes of the American public?

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