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From the archives: In an Italian prison, the call to Islam

The guards, heavy brass keys swinging from their belts, open and shut the metal gates to each floor of the labyrinthine Bollate prison as the Muslim call to prayer echoes in the corridors. Prisoners rush to the makeshift mosques that have sprouted in every building.

At the end of the hall on the fourth floor of Building 1, a hand-lettered paper sign proclaims, in Italian, moschea — mosque. Furnishings inside are sparse, just three green prayer rugs, pointing eastward, and on the wall a plaque with verses from the Koran.

Abdelfattah Jendoubi, serving a sentence on drug charges, throws on a dishdasha, pulls off his shoes and makes his way to the room.

The 42-year-old Tunisian is joined by two other men. He is apologetic, saying turnout is better on Fridays. Generally, though, younger Muslims in the prison are not very religious, he says.

He hopes to change that. "I want to teach the young beautiful things," he says, but it is unclear whether authorities, who lack Arabic speakers to monitor his preaching, would agree with his definition of beauty. "They have to change their lives. God wants them to leave the life of crime."

Jendoubi's mission is a difficult one: reaching out to the young men confined within these sterile walls on the outskirts of a city known the world over as Italy's vibrant fashion capital. About 30% of the inmates in Bollate are Muslim, officials say; that's in a country where Muslims make up just 2% of the population of 58 million, although there is a higher concentration of them in northern Italy around Milan.

Their burgeoning numbers in prison are a reproach to Europe's efforts to integrate its immigrants, and a boost to radical imams and hard-core militants who use cellblocks to attract followers and spread a doctrine of violence.

Many of the Muslim inmates here arrived in Italy alone, sometimes as young as 14, hoping to find an uncle or a cousin, or even a distant relative, and burdened with the overly optimistic expectations of their family back in Morocco, or Tunisia, or Algeria.

Once in Italy, they can find themselves trapped in a vicious circle. Unable to obtain proper work and residency documents, they live on the fringes, perhaps turning to crime to survive.

Marginalized in society, they are doubly marginalized in prison, outsiders in an institution where Italian clout and influence are supreme.

Their hopes of sending money to families who sacrificed to send them to Europe are vanquished. They will probably be deported, and going home as ex-cons will bring shame.

That fate probably awaits Bilel Sefir, an inmate with an air of quiet desperation. Sefir left his native Tunisia for France four years ago, when he was 17. After a couple of years he moved to Italy, thinking, mistakenly, that it would be easier to obtain residency papers.

Alone but for a friend who had come with him from France, he found odd jobs as a plumber and was able to support himself for about a year, until he was arrested in a crackdown on drug dealers.

"I made a big mistake," he says in a voice barely above a whisper. Sefir, tall but slight, with wavy dark hair, received a relatively short sentence of 14 months and expects to be sent back to Tunisia after his release.

Like Jendoubi, he takes some comfort in his faith. Sefir says he is able to pray five times a day, as devout Muslims do, with little trouble. In fact, he finds it easier to pray inside jail than outside, where mosques are far away and tolerance more rare.

"I have the time," he says. "Once in a while, other prisoners make fun of me and ask me why I do it the way I do and why do I keep praying. But most people are respectful.

"I pray mostly that God forgives me for what I've done."

Jendoubi, in his quest to save souls, sees far more hardened cases in Bollate. A greater number of young Muslim men here are like Mohammed Derrag, 23, a heavily tattooed Moroccan. He does not pray at all, saying, "This is not the moment."

Derrag is caught between his family and heritage, which he acknowledges he has betrayed with his criminal ways, and the gritty world in which he survives.

"I was born a Muslim and always will be a Muslim," he says. "But my family prays, not me."

On the wall of his cell, next to a photograph of his veiled mother, Derrag has put up girlie pictures clipped from a magazine. He also has a photo of his 4-year-old daughter, whom he hasn't seen since she was an infant. She lives with her Italian mother.

Derrag came to Italy from Morocco seven years ago, when he was 16, and started work at a factory making plastic shoes. He committed his first robbery three years later, the second one two years after that. His take in the latter: 50 million lira — about $10,000.

"I wanted to make some money without working," says Derrag, sporting a shaved head and long, baggy shorts. With something of a swagger, he shows a visitor his cell. As prisons go, the accommodations in Bollate are not too bad. Many inmates are given single rooms with a bed, small desk and a side kitchenette, complete with sink, refrigerator and camper-type gas stove. The door to his cell isn't locked, although gates to the floors are.

Derrag, who has been in prison for 2 1/2 years, is almost philosophical about the number of immigrants in Italian prisons.

"Probably we commit more crimes," he says. "So many people come here and don't find help, so logically they end up in crime. All over Italy, in all the jails, you find Arabs. And people from the south of Italy — the poorest people."

Even some young immigrants who seem destined for better things can get caught up in a hard-luck underground.

As baby-faced as Derrag is tough, Yunis Qabili, 19, landed in jail after being caught with friends who had drugs. Unlike most other inmates, Qabili has lived more than half his life in Italy with his parents and siblings, who arrived legally from Morocco. The teenager, who says he speaks better Italian than Arabic, worked as a mechanic. But he fell in with a bad crowd, and now he just wants to do his time (a year), get out and finish high school.

"The police will say they don't [discriminate], but I think they look more for Moroccans," Qabili says, narrowing his eyes and taking a long drag on his cigarette.

Mirroring friction on the streets, relations between Italian and immigrant prisoners are often strained. A recent and not uncommon brawl put several inmates in the infirmary.

In the prison's gyms, cafeteria and library, the inmates usually divide into cliques. Muslims lift weights and exercise together, and share pork-free halal meals. Bulletin boards advertise Italian lessons for Arabic speakers. The library has copies of the Koran — as well as works by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, known of late for her anti-Muslim screeds.

For a while, the prison employed "cultural mediators" who could translate both language and cultural sensitivities, but there's no budget for them anymore.

None of the inmates at Bollate talk about waging jihad; one youth recoils physically and begins to shake when asked. But authorities here, in Spain, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe are all too aware of the ease with which prison populations have become fodder for militant networks operating in their midst. Throughout Europe, some suspects in notorious cases, including the recent London bombings, are said to have been radicalized in prison, and a number of terrorist plots are known to have been hatched behind bars.

London bombing suspect Muktar Said Ibrahim, an Eritrean immigrant, obtained British citizenship last September despite having served a five-year prison sentence for armed robberies. He found Islam in the same penitentiary where radical imams converted Richard Reid, the convicted shoe-bomber of Jamaican descent imprisoned in the U.S. for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight.

And so the delicate balance for wardens like Lucia Castellano at Bollate is allowing inmates to practice their faith without letting the institution be used to recruit and indoctrinate extremists.

"I'm a little scared of the imams," she says. "They don't speak Italian, we can't understand them, and in Milan that can be quite dangerous." As a consequence, and in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, she has banned imams from outside the prison. Milan has long been known as a center of radical Islam, and one of its principal mosques was named by U.S. and Italian authorities as a likely European headquarters for Al Qaeda.

Instead, Castellano allows the Muslims in each cellblock to appoint an imam from among themselves.

Still, the inability to understand the language being spoken in many cells is worrisome, says Castellano, a red-haired native of Naples, one of Italy's toughest cities. Her office is decorated with Andy Warhol prints of Marilyn Monroe on one wall, a crucifix on another.

"Each of my head guards can tell me who the boss [of the Muslim inmates] is on each floor," she says. "It does not mean that they are terrorists, but they are organized. We are paying attention. We are watching."

But the warden and her guards can only guess at what devout prisoners such as Jendoubi are preaching.

On the fourth floor of Building 1, Italian inmates are giving hard looks to the trio of Muslims gathered to pray in the room designated as a mosque. They keep their distance, smoking cigarettes.

Jendoubi, the Tunisian, says he avoids the Italian inmates. But he praises the prison for allowing the Muslims to pray. A carpenter who has lived many years in Italy, he was not religious when he went to prison, he says, but has used his time in the three years since to study the Koran.

Now he prays 12 times a day, sometimes rising well before dawn to do so.

"I didn't pray before," says Jendoubi, who has a thin, graying beard. "But as I read more, I saw it was the right way."

Jendoubi is not his cellblock's imam, but he attends mosque without fail and is creating a "new life" for himself. The same, he says, awaits those young Muslims whom he persuades to turn to prayer.

On this particular midday, another Tunisian calls out the summons to prayer. He, Jendoubi and a third man then move inside the one-room mosque.

The three men kneel on the small rugs and pray. They bow eastward, toward a window looking out on the cold gray concrete of the prison, and the walls topped with barbed wire.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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