Are America's prisons incubating radical Islamists?
Recent domestic terror suspects had converted to Islam while in prison. Experts are divided on the extent of the threat.
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While conducting interviews with 30 felons classified as violent in California and Florida prisons, Hamm said one Muslim inmate said: "People are recruiting on the yard every day. It's a ripe climate for terrorism. It's scandalous. Everybody's glorifying Osama bin Laden. But these Muslims come to Islam with the same gang mentality they had on the streets."Skip to next paragraph
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Hamm is also concerned about young converts who become mesmerized by violent jihad. That appears to have been the case with Ruben Shumpert, the Seattle barber who converted to Islam and fought withAl Shabab in Somalia.
Finton, meanwhile, is accused of having similar jihadist aspirations. On Oct. 7, a federal grand jury in Illinois indicted Finton, whose nickname, Talib Islam, means "student of Islam," with trying to detonate a phony bomb supplied by the FBI.
Useem and Clayton, however, wrote that "the simple fact that an offender, after release, becomes involved in terrorist activity does not sufficiently demonstrate that the prison experience caused his radicalization."
Inevitably, Hamm says, imprisoned converts to Islam blend religion and gang culture into what many scholars dub prison Islam, or, informally, "prislam." It's a hybrid of the religion that is usually manipulated by Muslim gangs and espoused by their leaders.
While young and disaffected inmates often convert to Islam for religious or personal reasons, many have practical reasons, too.
"The reason people convert to Islam in prison is to reform themselves. They see the need for some sort of spiritual basis to reform their lives," says Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion and African studies at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "It also provides protection ... they will receive the protection of other Muslims."
Nation of Islam (NOI) popularized the Muslim faith among black prison inmates in the late 1950s. But when that movement splintered in the '70s, Sunni Islam took hold. While NOI remains active in penitentiaries, African-Americans are far more likely today to convert to Sunni Islam, and the majority of Muslim chaplains working with the correctional system are Sunnis.
After 9/11, Sunni prison chaplains came under intense scrutiny. Security hawks charged them with spreading hate. A 2003 Wall Street Journal article exposed the radical teachings of some Muslim chaplains in New York. The day after the article appeared, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York called for the dismissal of particular clerics who he said preached "Al Qaeda-type extremism to inmates."
The New York Department of Corrections quickly barred those imams from working in its prisons. Amid the controversy, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) enacted new rules for vetting religious service providers in its institutions.
"The BOP utilizes the same vetting and hiring process for all chaplains, regardless of faith affiliation," said Edmond Ross, a BOP spokesman, in an e-mail. "In recent years this process has been enhanced to ensure full-time chaplains meet significant requirements for academic training, experience, thorough backgroundd checks, and a demonstrated willingness and ability to provide and coordinate religious programs for inmates of all faiths."
Mr. Ross said that while the BOP does "not believe there is widespread terrorist-inspired radicalization or recruiting occurring in federal prisons, we do recognize that the potential for inmates to be radicalized is present."
Though many say radical imams are the root of the problem, others say Muslim chaplains may be a solution.
"Prisons ought to hire more chaplains and encourage more moderate Muslims to lead that outreach," says Hamm. "When there is a shortage of chaplains to provide religious guidance, into that void comes inmates with exotic religious messages."•