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.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
To the yard: Inmates at the Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy, Calif., on their way to outdoor recreation. Evidence is growing that inmates in American prisons are being indoctrinated into radical Islam.

Radical Islam spreads many ways. Through jihadist chat rooms and via fiery sermons, Islam's violent fringes seek newcomers to fight in the name of Allah. Now, evidence is mounting that American prisons, where about 35,000 inmates convert to Islam annually, are cause for concern, too.

Experts disagree over how fertile the ground is for prison radicalization, but the list of worrisome cases is growing.

•In 2005, federal agents thwarted attempts by a Muslim prison gang in California to attack synagogues and military sites.

•In 2008, a Seattle barber and prison convert was killed while fighting with Al Qaeda militants in Somalia.

•In May, four ex-­convicts in New York were charged with plotting to strike Jewish targets.

•Last month, a red-headed Midwesterner named Michael Finton, who reportedly converted to Islam in an Illinois prison, was arrested on suspicion of attempting to blow up a federal courthouse in Springfield, Ill.

Mr. Finton and the others are a tiny minority of some 240,000 American inmates who've converted to Islam since 9/11. But since 2001, counterterrorism officials have stepped up efforts to identify and disrupt what FBI Director Robert Mueller recently called "pockets of radicalization" in state and federal prisons.

But how deep and influential are those pockets? And how dangerous? According to two recently published studies, concerns may be overblown about the ability of Al Qaeda or like-minded militants to cobble together terror cells by tapping disaffected Muslim-American prisoners.

"It doesn't seem to be happening. If prisons are incubators for radicalization, you'd think we would have seen it by now," says Bert Useem, a sociologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. His three-year study on radicalization appeared in the August issue of Criminology and Public Policy.

Professor Useem and Obie Clayton, a sociologist at Morehouse College in Atlanta, interviewed 210 prison officials and 270 inmates in 27 medium- and maximum-security state prisons. "The claim that prisons will generate scores of terrorists spilling out onto the streets of our cities ... seems to be false, or at least overstated," they concluded.

Similarly, a June article in the British Journal of Criminology, by criminologist Mark Hamm, debunks many post-9/11 theories about prison radicalization, namely the idea that austere Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia were making inroads with prison converts in America.

"There's no indication of proselytizing coming from outside the walls," says Dr. Hamm, a professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, in a phone interview. "Prisoners are radicalized by other prisoners."

Unlike Useem and Clayton, Hamm gives credence to the idea that prisoner radicalization poses a national and international security risk. While US agents have discovered only one prison-born operational terrorist cell – a group called Jamiyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh, or JIS – the possibility exists that others could follow.

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."

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."•

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