Prisoners Find Direction In Muslim Faith

February 15, 2009

Author: Krista J. Kapralos

Source: The Everett Herald

The announcement rang out across the open courtyards of the Monroe Correctional Complex.

"Movement is now open."

Men wearing baggy navy-blue sweatshirts and loose-fitting pants or jeans drifted from one building to the next. They ambled along, laughing with one another and gulping in fresh air. It's free time, when prisoners who are being held for rape, burglary, murder and other crimes can attend classes or read in the library.

A small group of men, many wearing crocheted skullcaps, filed into a windowless room. They tug off their shoes and ease down cross-legged on thin rugs that have been spread on the floor for the service.

Prison is a tomb or a womb, they say. Either a man wastes his years on the inside and allows bitterness to rot his soul, or he uses the time to quiet the rage or fear or desperation that landed him in prison. Anthony Waller, like many Muslims at Twin Rivers, converted to the faith while behind bars. That changed everything, he said.

"If I wasn't a Muslim I'd still be in closed custody," Waller, 31, said, referring to prison facilities that strictly control prisoners with violent pasts.

"Or, I'd be dead," he said.

Waller, who doesn't expect to see freedom until 2033, attends a Muslim prison service every week with dozens of other men who have converted to the faith since being locked away. These "prison Muslims" are among the fastest-growing religious groups in U.S. correctional facilities.

A movement that began in the 1970s under Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to evangelize inmates has evolved into one of the most effective religious rehabilitation agendas in the U.S. Imams under the Nation of Islam continue to draw converts, but most Muslims in prison today are Sunnis, said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor at Vassar College who has studied Muslim prison ministries.

Mamiya estimates that about 10 percent of all prison inmates have converted to Islam. Using his estimate, about 1,800 of the state's 18,000 inmates would be Muslim.