An estimated 40,000 inmates in U.S. prisons are converting to Islam every year. At the outset, it is important to note that religious conversion to Islam – or any religion — is not by itself an indicator of future extremism, violent or otherwise.
Of course, there are many examples where conversion to Islam in prison was part of a radicalization process.
Yet, in the U.S., it should be noted that inmates that convert to Islam have lower recidivism rates than average (in most states, over half of all released inmates recidivate within three years).
In Part I (below) of our three-part series on Islam in U.S. Prisons, we explore the question: Why are prisoners converting to Islam?
The following is an interview with Clarion’s research associate who has been following this issue.
Question: Can you tell us what are the main reasons why inmates are converting to Islam?
Answer: There are three main reasons why those in prison convert to Islam: The first has to do with the psychology of prison and stems from the need to belong. The second is the welcoming aspect of Islam, and the third is the pathway it offers to rehabilitation.
Q: Can you explain how each of these factors work?
A: Let’s first talk about factors that I call “the psychology of prison.” Being in prison is very different from being “on the outside.” More often than not, on a safety level, inmates need a group to protect them. The need for a group to belong to is also a factor on an emotional level.
Islam is attractive because it gives a prisoner a group to belong to and identify with. The Islamic concept of communal worship has been credited with the fact that converts to Islam are larger than any other religion in the U.S. prison system.
In addition, whereas other groups many shun a prisoner because of the crime he committed or even the color of his skin, prisoners report that Muslim groups in prisons are open to all types of inmates.
Q: Are there other factors at play as well?
A: Of course, as is human nature, some converts just want to play the system. They think that Muslims get better treatment, food, privileges, etc.
Others may simply want to escape the dreary day-to-day aspect of prison life. But many inmates are in genuine spiritual crises. This group is looking for redemption.
Q: You mentioned that in the U.S., conversion to Islam can be pathway to rehabilitation. Can you explain that more?
A: Yes, this is a unique factor that we see happening in the U.S. versus Europe where prison conversion and subsequent radicalization is a huge problem [see Part III of this series].
But in the U.S., more often than not, a conversion to Islam can be a big factor in a prisoner’s rehabilitation. Islam requires personal and moral discipline. For those struggling with alcohol or drug addictions, it can provide a positive structure and a means of support and motivation to stay away from these substances.
In fact, studies have shown that the moral and social discipline of the religion allows these addicts to cope much better after conversion.
One of the most important figures in the Bay Area Muslim Community, for example, is Imam Abu Qadir Al-Amin, the former leader of the San Francisco Muslim Community Center. After a year of incarceration in San Quentin on death row, he embraced Islam.
As it turned out, his death sentence was cancelled and he was released six years later. He then became active teaching in prisons. Al-Amin went on to lead one of the most thriving and diverse communities in the Bay Area, was a member of the Northern California Majlis al-Shurah and has received numerous civic awards for his community activism, both in prisons and the inner city.
He is now the associate director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, based in San Francisco. Today, Al-Amin regularly speaks about the criminal justice system, Islam and the possibilities for social rehabilitation of prisoners.
In Part II, we will discuss the problem and of prison radicalization – both Islamist and other forms of extremism