Advertisement

He’s Putting His Faith Behind Bars : Religion: Chaplain at Terminal Island prison is one of eight full-time Muslim imams in the federal penal system.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man in a spotless white shirt and khaki pants stands barefoot on a large rug, holding his hands at his ears and calling out in rhythmic Arabic.

“Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” he repeats, his face turned respectfully toward the northeast as he chants the Arabic prayer announcing Allah’s greatness.

Other men enter the room and gather around him, kneeling, closing their eyes and whispering quiet supplications. As they finish, Abu Ishaq Abdul-Hafiz--a Muslim spiritual leader, or imam--begins a sermon urging them to take the worst of life and become better people for it.

Unfortunately, these men--inmates at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution--know all too well how bad life can be.

Advertisement

Abdul-Hafiz, 41, one of only eight full-time Muslim imams serving as a chaplain in the federal prison system, has chosen to spend his days in a place where those he counsels can only count the years until they leave.

“I couldn’t foresee anything but another sensation through heroin,” 44-year-old inmate William Walker said of life before prison. But then came Abdul-Hafiz, who “inspired me to find another way. . . . I don’t know what my path would have been if I hadn’t been incarcerated and found Islam.”

The prison on Terminal Island, isolated on a small industrial peninsula built out into Los Angeles Harbor, houses more than 1,200 inmates, about 50 of whom are practicing Muslims.

In 1984, responding to a surge of interest in Islam among black inmates, the federal Bureau of Prisons hired its first full-time imam to serve as a chaplain at Lompoc. When he left in 1987, administrators recruited Abdul-Hafiz, who had recently returned from a six-year Muslim study program in Saudi Arabia.

Advertisement

When he was hired at Lompoc, he became only the second imam to work full time in the federal prison system.

“I wanted to help those in the least position to have access to Islamic information,” he said. “I thought about the Saudi environment, which is closed, and I figured if I could work there, I certainly could work in prison.”

In prisons throughout the United States, Abdul-Hafiz said, the lack of regular Islamic education had led to misunderstandings.

“When there wasn’t an imam in the prison system, the religion developed without any direction,” he said. “Ideas became extremist, and they adopted practices which were not accepted in the faith. . . . We started to see another whole religion developing . . . that was becoming the opposite of what Islam actually is.”

Advertisement

Groups of African-American inmates, tracing their heritage back to West African slaves who were Muslim, adopted Islam as their religious affiliation but insisted that membership should be limited to blacks, he said.

Then, about 10 years ago, he said, Muslims outside the prisons began to worry about what was happening to the faith behind bars.

“We wanted to be able to make sure the religion is exposed for what it really is--peace and harmony, for all people,” Abdul-Hafiz said.

Because he must serve all faiths, Abdul-Hafiz said, his position as a prison chaplain is well-suited to getting that message across.

Advertisement

“All religions actually are from one source and really are the same,” he said. “We’re all talking about the same God, the same guide.”

The same small prison chapel serves not only as a mosque for the Muslims but, among other things, as a church for Christians, a meditation center and shrine for Buddhists and a synagogue for Jews. Regardless of an inmate’s religious affiliation, Abdul-Hafiz tries to help him find spiritual peace.

Nonetheless, many are suspicious at first of the gentle, quiet man wearing an ornate Muslim prayer cap.

“When I first knew we would be getting an imam (as a chaplain), I think, ‘Oh, boy. We have a problem. I can’t talk to him,’ ” said Avi Zalcaia, 41, a Jewish Israeli inmate convicted of tax evasion.

Advertisement

Shortly after Abdul-Hafiz moved from Lompoc Federal Penitentiary to Terminal Island two years ago, a small group of Jewish inmates asked him to help bring Jewish literature into the prison. They did not expect success, Zalcaia said.

Within a week, however, the books were there.

“We crossed the bridge,” Zalcaia said. “We learned then that people have to know how to live together. In jail, there are so many different types of people living in so little space. Maybe it’s a message to the outside that we get together so well.”

Inmates of all faiths say they can relate to the imam.

Advertisement

“Without him, we could not exist as a Buddhist group,” said Warin Sae-Heng, an inmate from Bangkok convicted on drug charges. “I give him credit. He treats us equal.”

Before Abdul-Hafiz arrived, Sae-Heng said, the prison’s 30 Buddhist inmates scarcely practiced their religion. Now, with regular visits by Buddhist monks and nuns from a Hacienda Heights temple, arranged by Abdul-Hafiz, the group is flourishing.

Abdul-Hafiz and the institution’s head chaplain, Father Bill Nadeau, often contract for outside religious leaders to visit the prison periodically.

A third chaplain, a Protestant minister, will join the full-time staff this month.

Advertisement

Nadeau said he recruited Abdul-Hafiz to Terminal Island after watching him work at Lompoc.

“You get from him this sense of gentleness and care and compassion in a very hostile environment,” the head chaplain said. “Just being present to the men helps, to be able to listen and absorb the hurt and the pain.”

Born Albert Eugene Simms Jr. in Gary, Ind., Abdul-Hafiz discovered Islam during his junior year at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

“One of my African history professors was a Christian, . . . teaching us the basics of Islam in Africa,” Abdul-Hafiz said. “He said they believed in Jesus as a prophet of God, not God incarnate, and I thought, ‘Wow. All my life I’ve been thinking that. . . . This makes sense to me.’ ”

Advertisement

After studying several religions, Abdul-Hafiz took his Islamic oath of faith July 7, 1971, and adopted his Arabic name.

He made a living as a news director and reporter for an Alabama radio station for six years, but later returned to Indiana to take part in an intensive Islamic training program. In 1980, he won a long-term scholarship to study in Saudi Arabia, where he also worked in Saudi radio.

When he returned to the United States in 1986, he knew what he wanted to do.

“I prayed to God, please let me be able to give back some of the goodness that came to me.”

Advertisement

In the prisons, he met inmates such as Walker, and taught them to care about their lives.

With just over three months left in his nine-year sentence for bank robbery, Walker says he is seeking a fresh start in an Islamic community that will help him build a new life beyond the prison walls.

“Be the will of Allah, I’ll find my place,” he said, glancing out the chapel window. “I appreciate day-to-day living now. I look forward to Allah waking me up every day at 5 a.m. so that I can worship him.”

Islam in the Prisons * Islam (Arabic for “submission to God”) was founded about A.D. 610 by the prophet Muhammad, who received the holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran, from Allah (the Arabic word for God).

Advertisement

* Muslims, followers of Islam, devote themselves to the worship of Allah through the Five Pillars: repeating the statement “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet;” offering formal prayers five times daily while facing Mecca; giving alms; fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime.

* The Bureau of Prisons does not keep statistics on the religious preferences of its inmates. The American Muslim Council, however, recently completed a survey of several county, state and federal prisons for men. The study concluded that about 90% of the nation’s 96,000 incarcerated Muslim men are African-American.

* Of the 432,000 male black inmates, about 20% claim Islam as their religious preference, according to the study.


Advertisement
Advertisement