Prison Islam: Conversion to Islam While Incarcerated Often Inspires Rehabilitation, Not Radicalization

By: Bria Burgamy

Islam is not only the fastest-growing religion in the world, but also the fastest-growing religion in United States prisons, with tens of thousands of converts in U.S. prisons each year. According to Al Jazeera, ten to fifteen percent of prisoners nationwide practice Islam, compared to just one percent of the total U.S. population. From these statistics essentially come two theories to explain the high conversion rates: (1) inmates convert to Islam because the Qur’an can be used to justify violence and crime,[1] and (2) Islam provides inmates with a set of principles through which to better their lives, as well as a sense of identity that defies the strict race structure in many U.S. prisons.

The first theory, although believed by many Americans, has little empirical support. Some risk of radicalization is sure to exist, but “claims about a crisis are based largely on unsupported assertions.”[2] Incidents such as the 2005 Los Angeles bomb plot have been cited as evidence of Islamic radicalization in prison. The 2005 Los Angeles bomb plot was a conspiracy between four men: Kevin James, Levar Washington, Gregory Patterson, and Hammad Samana. Samana was the only one born Muslim, the other three men converted as adults. James founded a radical Islamic prison gang while incarcerated, and recruited Washington. Upon Washington’s release from prison, he recruited ex-convicts Patterson and Samana for terror attacks on National Guard facilities, the Israeli Consulate, and several synagogues in Los Angeles. Washington, Patterson, and Samana were arrested during a robbery prior to the planned attacks. Upon investigation, police found evidence of the planned terror attacks.

However, such incidents of radicalization and terrorism are few and far between when compared to the number of Muslim converts in U.S. prisons. According to criminologist and former prison warden Mark Hamm, radicalization behind bars is a serious threat – but Islam is not to blame. Hamm instead attributes dangerous radicalization to the harsh conditions of confinement. Conversion to Islam, on the other hand, he says most often has “a positive effect on inmate behavior.”

Hamm’s stance supports the second theory for the reason behind the high conversion rates, stating that Islam is a means for inmates to build structure, find spiritual guidance, and strive for self-improvement. U.S. prisons are highly racialized communities, where allegiance is often based strictly on the color of one’s skin. For those who convert to Islam while incarcerated, a belief in Allah overrides other features of one’s identity. This allows inmates to see and live beyond the race structure of the prison, allowing them to focus instead on their own journey of self-improvement and rehabilitation.

The positive effects of conversion to Islam carry over when inmates who convert to Islam are released, with studies showing low recidivism rates and decreased drug and alcohol addiction among converts. Abu Qadir Al-Amin was on death row for the 1969 murder of a security guard when he found Islam. A 1972 case, which commuted Al-Amin’s death sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole, gave him a new lease on life. Al-Amin became a Muslim minister and, since his release from prison, has been actively involved in bringing attention to how Islam provides a path for inmates to rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Al-Amin has received numerous civic awards for his dedication to his community. Despite the fact that the demonization and criminalization of Muslims in the U.S. “thrives through false theories of radicalization and homegrown threats connected with the Muslim identity,”[3] Al-Amin’s story brings to light the truth of what Islam means for the majority of inmate converts.

[1] Aaron Rappaport et al., Homeland Security and the Inmate Population: The Risk and Reality of Islamic Radicalization in Prison, SAGE Publications, Inc. at 431 (2013).

[2] Aaron Rappaport et al., Homeland Security and the Inmate Population: The Risk and Reality of Islamic Radicalization in Prison, SAGE Publications, Inc. at 431 (2013).

[3] Amanda Parris, Criminalization of Muslims in the United States: A Homegrown Threat to Justice, Emory Univ. (Spring 2018), https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/6969z081q?locale=en

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