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.
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). This has not been the case in Europe.
Of course, there are instances where conversion to Islam in a U.S. prison was part of a radicalization process.
In Part I of our three-part series on Islam in U.S. Prisons, we explored the question: Why are prisoners converting to Islam?
In Part II (below), we tackle the problem of prison radicalization – both with Islamist and other forms of extremism.
The following is an interview with Clarion’s research associate who has been following this issue.
Question: What are the main factors leading to prison radicalization?
Answer: Radicalization in prisons is usually linked to prison gangs, not religion, per se. Violent gangs formed around ethnic and racial lines exist in the U.S. prison system, and some of these types of gangs delve into radical, extremist ideologies. Often, these ideologies are integral to founding cohesive group identities within prison.
In addition, disorderly, congested “Supermax” facilities have turned prisons into hotbeds for personal transformation due to the increasingly chaotic nature of prison life that overcrowding causes.
Overcrowding amplifies the social marginalization of inmates and deepens their need for bonding, group identity, spiritual guidance and protection against violence in the maximum security mix.
Q: What are the main reasons inmates radicalize in prisons?
A: A leading theory of prisoner radicalization holds that the effects of this type of mass incarceration breed a desire in inmates to defy the authorities who incarcerate them. This creates a condition where prisoners view “identities of resistance” favorably.
In terms of Islam, you could say that this “resistance” represents a sort of “jihadi cool” behind bars. Some researchers note that Islam, which is perceived to be the “religion of the oppressed,” is fast becoming prisoners’ preferred ideology of resistance, playing the role that Marxism once did.
Along with protection from victimization and the search for meaning and identity, this ideology of resistance is a primary catalyst for inmate conversions to a range of Islamic traditions, including Islamist orientations that may espouse ideologies of intolerance and violence.
Foremost among them is the amorphous social movement called Salafism—the narrow, strict, puritanical form of Sunni Islam upon which al-Qaeda is based.
Extremist “prison Islam” groups are known for using religious medallions and tattoos, along with selective verses from the Quran, to draw recruits from gang subcultures. Once radicalized by these extremist beliefs, prisoners become vulnerable to terrorist recruitment.
Q: Which radical ideology is considered the most deadly in prisons?
A: Actually, the Aryan Brotherhood (a white supremacist group) has been identified as the most deadly movement in U.S. jails. Although their members represent only 1/10 of one percent of the nation’s entire prison population, its members are responsible for 18 percent of all prison murders.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the known cases of Islamist prison radicalization?
A: Since Sayyid Qutb (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) wrote Milestones Along the Road in an Egyptian prison, jails have been widely recognized as important incubators of jihadist thought.
Kevin James, Levar Washington, Gregory Patterson & Hamad Samana were arrested and charged with terror offenses in 2005 for planning to attack military facilities in the Los Angeles area.
According to the Department of Justice, James, who converted to Islam in prison, founded a radical Islamic group called JIS (Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or “Assembly of Authentic Islam”) from his prison cell in California and recruited fellow inmates to join his mission to kill infidels.
Richard Reid, known as the “Shoe Bomber,” was a petty criminal and radicalized in a UK prison. Reid attempted to detonate an explosive device packed into his shoes while on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami in 2001.
Muktar Ibrahim, the leader of the 7/7 attacks on the London public transportation system, was also radicalized in a UK prison.
In Part III of our series on Islam in U.S. Prisons, we explore the difference between the U.S. and Europe and why Islamist radicalization in prison is not as prevalent in the U.S. as it is in Europe.