Brotherhood Behind Bars:


The State of Muslim American Inmates of North & South Carolina

by Imam Tamir Mutakabbir

Based on my experience as a chaplain for the South Carolina prison system, roughly 10% of America’s prison population is Muslim. This is across the board regardless of the size of the jail or prison. This means some facilities have only thirty Muslims while others have hundreds. Nationwide, there are over 220,000 Muslim inmates. The total population of Muslims in South Carolina is about 3,300 and approximately 5,200 in North Carolina. In spite of this large number, I was the only Muslim chaplain for the entire state of South Carolina, covering twenty-six prisons.

Who are the Muslims in Prison? During my six year tenure as chaplain, I only encountered ten Muslims who were raised as Muslim; all the other Muslim inmates converted after incarceration.  Many of these embrace Islam to gain protection of being with the group. Bonding for protection is important in the prison system, and the Muslims are known for sticking together and protecting one another.

This has deep roots in the prison work that has been done for decades via the Nation of Islam. In the history of the Nation of Islam, you can see many prominent members who aided in the evolution of the movement such as Malcolm X and Warith Deen Muhammad having spent time in prison. As a result, there was one time where nearly 100% of the inmate Muslim population was African American.

However, in the time that I spent as chaplain, I could see people of all ethnicities coming to Islam through prison dawah (witnessing) efforts. A typical group breakdown: out of 150 people, we would see about twenty of European descent, some Arabs, a few Latinos and one or two Native Americans, and the rest would be African-American.  Of course, African-Americans are going to be the largest number because they represent the largest percentage of the overall prison population.

What are the Challenges Facing Muslim Inmates? The single greatest challenge for Muslims in prison is self-purification, and this relates to the largest problems for all inmates, which are self-deception and uncontrolled anger. A program of teaching that focuses on self-purification can eradicate the issues of deception and rage.  The self-deception comes from a mindset where the inmate thinks he’s cleverer than anyone else and believes himself to be in control of the situation when really he is falling deeper and deeper into chaos.

The other aspect of prison life that Muslim inmates have to deal with is something we call STG, that is, a Security Threat Group.  This is like gang affiliation; in prison there are Bloods, Crips, 5%ers and other gangs that pull on inmates.  People in prison are looking for protection; they seek protection from these gangs, but they also seek protection from religious groups.  For several generations, the Nation of Islam established itself in the prisons as a source of knowledge, empowerment, and protection.  Today, Muslims still bond together in prison for protection.  Some prison administrators see the large Muslim populations as an STG while others view them as a positive alternative. This can present a challenge to chaplains trying to assist the Muslim inmates.  This is where constructive dawah and interfaith on the outside of the prison can help. If prison guards and administrators can connect with Muslims and break down their own prejudices, then it makes our job administering to the needs of Muslim inmates that much easier.

It is true that many inmates originally come to Islam to seek that protection, and that is why we often see a hundred Muslims released from prison and maybe ten to twenty come to the mosque.  This falloff of the Muslims upon release is a challenge for our community on the outside, to make sure that the masjid (mosque) is a welcoming place for the former inmates who seek it out and also to establish solid communication with the other Muslims who don’t seek out the masjid to help them toward righteousness.

What do Muslim Inmates Need From the Community? During my time with SC prisons as a chaplain, I came to realize very quickly that we cannot do anything without volunteers.  There are some volunteers who are so dedicated that they will “adopt” entire prison populations, create programs to teach weekly. They bring food for Ramadan and for Eid.  All of this is needed in a desperate way.  The most important aspect that any volunteer for Muslim inmates can have though is consistency.  The absolute worst thing that you can do as a volunteer is to show up for a week or two and then disappear.  This creates a mindset in the inmate that “nobody cares about me anyway” and can increase the problems we mentioned earlier regarding internal rage and distrust.  If someone is new to Islam, it can cause him or her to lose faith.

Therefore, when you choose to create a prison volunteer program at your mosque or as a community of concerned people, make sure you establish a network that is solid enough to provide consistency. Establish a program that is sustainable; don’t promise three times a week when you know you’re going to be hard pressed to do one a week.  It is better to do one a week with consistency than to do three a week and have it fall apart.  Lastly, create a plan for your teaching sessions and be able to submit a course outline for months in advance so the chaplain of the prison can know what is going on.

Inmates don’t need someone to just show up and show “The Message” for the tenth time.  They crave knowledge.  Inmates want knowledge about Islam; they want to learn Arabic.  Nothing is too basic, and nothing is too complex.  The more knowledge that you can bring, the more rooted in the faith these brothers and sisters will become.

When prisoners are released, there are a new set of challenges and a new set of needs from the community.  There are some inmates who have a hard time getting jobs when they are released because they are sex offenders, they need help to stay righteous and stay focused on integrating into society. These people try to change their lives but they keep getting kicked down and will do things intentionally to get back into prison because it’s the only way they can feel normal.  We, as a Muslim community, have to be willing to accept that this man or woman is trying to change his or her life, that he or she has accepted Islam and God has made him or her into a clean person.  We need to help the converts in self-purification and help them have an income so they can remain strong as Muslim Americans outside of the prison walls.

Unfortunately what often happens is that these brothers and sisters come out of prison, and the mentality of Muslims at the mosques is to keep them mentally in prison.  Once word gets out that so-and-so used to be a criminal, then the community slowly turns against him or her and shuts him or her off from the benefits that God has commanded us to give to such people.  We have obligations to one another; those obligations do not change just because of someone’s pre-Islamic life.

The Game Changer Christians have amazing correspondence programs from all over the world.  They have programs to educate inmates on the Bible and Christian theology and such.  The Muslims need an intensive program like that.

Several of us across the country are working on a program to provide Qur’anic Correspondence Schools for inmates.  Beyond Islamic education, we are working to provide vocational education and trade skills so that these brothers and sisters can have new skills once they are released.

Get Involved The Muslims coming from prison can be a powerful part of our community if we let them.  We have to embrace them, be willing to compromise, be willing to work hard, and be willing to accept them for who they are, not focus on who they were.  Make our mosques open and welcoming places for anyone who says, “I am Muslim; I’m here to learn.”  Get involved with your local prison by creating a volunteer base that can go in and work with the inmates to strengthen those bonds of brotherhood.  Contribute to the development of programs that will educate inmates in both spiritual and vocational worlds.

Make this a priority.  Dawah is incumbent upon all of us, and we do it so well.  That second step after the dawah, nurturing the new Muslim, is hard, and we have got to all rise to the challenge for our brothers and sisters behind bars.

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