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Radical Islam an Issue in Prisons

Times Staff Writer

Islamic extremism is a potential danger in California’s state prisons, but one that can be mitigated by closely monitoring inmates and carefully and consistently screening Muslim chaplains, say Muslim clerics, scholars and prison officials.

Federal investigators suspect that an Islamist prison gang, called Jamiyyat Ul Islam Is Saheeh, or Assembly of Authentic Islam, may have links to three Muslim men recently implicated in a possible plot to attack National Guard Recruitment Centers in California.

One of the suspects converted to Islam while serving time at Folsom state prison.

Federal authorities are investigating Islamic radicalism in state prisons, and California Department of Corrections officials are facing a barrage of questions about the effectiveness of their Muslim chaplaincy programs.

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The Corrections Department has a policy of hiring Muslim chaplains who are endorsed by an established board of Islamic leaders to minister to inmates. But in practice, each institution has wide latitude.

Some prisons have full-time chaplains vetted by Muslim leaders. Others have hired chaplains on a more informal and part-time basis or invite volunteers to preach to Muslim inmates, Muslim chaplains said.

Still other prisons don’t have Muslim chaplains at all and allow Muslim inmates to take on some religious leadership roles within the institution.

The diversity of Muslim chaplain programs reflects the fact that religious positions within prisons are often difficult to fill.

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It also reflects the interests of Muslim organizations who are competing for prisoners’ souls at a time of great demographic change within the American Muslim community as a whole.

As the American Muslim community has diversified from a mostly African American convert community to include a significant number of immigrant South Asian and Middle Eastern believers, more Muslim organizations have shown interest in ministering to prisoners.

Currently there are 30 full-time and part-time chaplains working in California’s 32 prison facilities.

Muslim chaplains say they preach a moderate brand of Islam that focuses on individual responsibility and redemption, but acknowledge that some prisoners sometimes take their faith to militant extremes.

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Chaplains also worry that groups outside the prison walls want to recruit inmates to extremist causes.

“Common sense tells us that there are people among us who have anti-American sentiments and who harbor dislike and frustration with America,” said Imam Brynell Muhammad, a Muslim chaplain at Wasco State Prison.

“I think the state needs to consult and utilize endorsing agencies and have some of us current chaplains help and assist to monitor the hiring of new chaplains. To my knowledge, they don’t do this now,” he said.

State corrections officials say they screen every person who works in the prison system, conducting careful background checks and monitoring their activities closely within facilities.

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“But if you’re asking me are our concerns about extremism in the prisons real, I’d have to say yeah, they are -- and have been for a long time,” said one state prison official, who declined to be identified because of a department directive to refrain from discussing the issue.

Last month, police in Torrance arrested Gregory Vernon Patterson, 21, and Levar Haney Washington, 25, in connection with a string of gas station robberies.

Washington converted to Islam in Folsom while serving time for assault and robbery, authorities said.

Police staked out the pair and were led to Hammad Riaz Samana. Sources familiar with a federal investigation of the trio say they are suspected of planning to stage a series of terrorist attacks in California.

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Federal authorities are also investigating links between Muslim inmates and extremist Muslim groups in and outside the prison system.

Militant Muslims have been of concern to prison officials since the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group, gained popularity among African American convicts in the 1960s.

Those fears, however, were allayed somewhat as prison authorities witnessed the redemptive and mostly peaceful brand of Islam practiced by many Muslim inmates.

During the Attica prison riots in 1971 in New York, for example, Muslim inmates helped keep guards safe from harm.

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After Warith Deen Muhammad split from the Nation of Islam organization to found his own group, he too made prison ministries a priority, focusing on personal spirituality and rehabilitation.

These two schools of Islam remain the largest in prisons in the United States.

A 2004 U.S. Department of Justice study reported that about 6% of the nation’s 150,000 federal inmates were Muslims, and the majority of them were African American converts.

California prison authorities said they did not know how many Muslims were incarcerated in state penitentiaries.

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The federal study also found that an aggressive brand of Islam often took root in prisons that lacked professional Muslim clerics, where inmate believers took on leadership roles despite having little training or knowledge of Islam’s tenets.

“Sometimes the Muslims within the prisons lead prayers,” said Imam Abdul Karim Hasan, a member of the committee that recommends Muslim clerics to the state prison system. “But we don’t recommend inmate leadership of Muslim groups inside these institutions.”

Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California prison system, said the department’s policy forbids inmates from leading the traditional Friday congregational prayer and sermon.

But the practice occurs in prisons that don’t have full-time chaplains, Hasan said.

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“Each institution has its own administration, and we don’t really know what’s on their mind,” he said. “Some prisons want a single imam; others want a part-time position.”

But Hasan also urged the state to be careful when hiring more Muslim chaplains.

As the wider American Muslim community has grown and diversified along ethnic and national lines, competition for Muslim chaplaincies has increased as well. Hasan said he was less familiar with the views of these newcomers.

“We don’t ascribe to Wahhabism or any other ism,” Hasan said, referring to the Saudi-based, ultra-orthodox version of Islam, “but the state does use other endorsing agencies. We can’t vouch for them. We don’t believe they teach extremism, but we don’t know.”

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In 2003, New York State prison officials banned Administrative Chaplain Warithuddin Umar after he allegedly made comments supporting the 9/11 attacks.

Authorities there also identified dozens of clerics whom Umar had recruited for the state prison system and alleged that many of them practiced Wahhabism and held extremist views.

Louay Safi, the executive director of a Muslim chaplaincy training program for the Islamic Society of North America, a largely immigrant-based Muslim association, said his organization endorses Muslim chaplains for service in the federal Bureau of Prisons system and is planning to take a closer look at state prison chaplaincies.

“Each state has its own regulations and standards” for Muslim chaplains, Safi said. “Some are even unpaid volunteers, so it’s difficult at this point to say how many prison imams there are, who they are, or what they believe.”

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Muhammad, the Wasco State Prison chaplain, said inmates, who are often new converts with little knowledge of Islam, are susceptible to extremist views brought in by new prisoners or those transferred from other institutions.

“A lot of times these groups from the outside are reaching these guys inside,” he said.

“The inmates are susceptible to radicalism because they’re angry. Many of them are angry at their situation, and they blame the government,” Muhammad said.

But Hasan said it was the job of Muslim prison chaplains to redirect inmates’ energies to working on themselves, rather than blaming their circumstances on others.

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“Our emphasis is on changing the character of the individual inside the institution,” Hasan said.


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