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.


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).


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

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

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

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.