The Trials of Today’s Enemy: A Foray into Muslim Prison Life


In an age when over a third of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims and nearly a quarter believe that all Muslims are anti-American, prisons are still seeing significant rates of converstion to Islam.  What is drawing American inmates toward a conversion that will almost certianly result in prejudice? Are the prejudices that face Muslims different for men than for women?

 ”Some of it is a black thing... sometimes a charismatic leader... some of them are interested in just doing something in just getting out of their cell but a number of them are interested in transformation.” 

- Musa

Generally, many of the same resaons that people are drawn to any religious practice apply to Islam as well.  However, for its practicioners, Islam provides something very special, particularly in light of the challenges of prison life. While the numbers are flagging slightly, conversion while incarcerated is still extremely common.  Layla Assem, a prison volunteer and educator in Oregon reported that most of the incarcerated muslim women she works with had converted while in prison or jail.  Likewise, Mika’il DeVeaux, a Soros Justice Fellow, a prison volunteer and an advocate on the behalf of incarcerated Muslims for development of policies with focus on reentry, reported that at least seventy percent and likely more of the Muslims currently incarcerated in New York Stat’s prisons converted while incarcerated. Islam teaches the incarcerated some valuable lessons they can utilize in their life both in the prisons and in the society. Discipline is essential in Islam: discipline is require in order to make the five daily prayers; it takes discipline to fast during the month of Ramadan.  Fasting teachs Muslims to restrain them self.  If a person learns to can restrain themselves from things that are permissible, then it should be easier to restrain the self from things that are not permissible according to the teachings of the faith, as Deveaux points out. Islam can also provide valuble guidance for successfully undertaking drug treatment programs.  According to Muhammad you cannot be a Muslim when you are an addict, because the Prophet Muhammad said that ”Don’t come to prayer with your mind fogged.” therefore Muhammad gives the advice to put down your kufi and your Koran and leave your religion behind you when going into drug counseling, and when you are clean you can become a Muslim again..

Imams and volunteers from diverse social, educational and religious backgrounds cited the same few critical tenets of Islam which offer new approaches to issues in prison life such as gang tensions, racisim and rehabilition.  Every interviewee stressed the importance of the Muslim value of equality. For many practicioners, Islam provides a welcomed relief from often strong racial tensions present in the prison system. The concept of sisterhood and brotherhood breaks down many of the exsting barriers between racial groups.  DeVeaux noted that, ”Within the ranks, the racial disparities have been minimized.”  While the Muslim prison population in New York state is primarily made up of African-Americans, there is a significant number of Latinos and the number of immigrants from various parts of the world is on the rise.  In many cases this diversity among the Muslim population can diffuse tensions between gangs or create relationships between inmates who otherwise might not associate with one another.  Dawoud Kringle, a volunteer Imam working in New York City jails, recalled a moment of tension between one gang and the Muslim community in prison.  In response several of the other gangs sent emmisaries to Friday prayer services to express respect and solidarity.  Assem’s experience in Oregon is even more dramatic.  In female prisons she has seen Islam work to break up gang activity.”There is so much respect for women in Islam [...] 

We help them to become women of strength.”

- Layla Assem

Islam plays an expecially important role in the lives of the women that practice it.  Kringle, a Sufi, explained, ”If we are to take the life and example of the Prophet, we find that females have inalienable, god-given rights which include choosing husbands, owning property […] Both Muslim women and men are obligated toward the pursuit of knowledge.” Askia Muhammad, a chaplain who works in the Ruth Singer Women’s unit on Rikers Island, described women as “the first teachers of children” and the keepers of society.  He speculated that atleast ninety percet of the women that he works with have experienced some kind of sexual abuse and many of them have severe drug and alcohol addictions.  Both Muhammad and Assem stressed the important role that this seperation can have in building back extremely damaged self-esteem and sense of personal direction. Muhammad described his approach as one of teaching women about their inherrant dignity, not about legalistic? requirements that ignore the challenging issues his congegants are struggling to work through. Assem sees part of her job as helping the women she works with heal, ”getting that self-esteem and self-love going.”  She is also helping inmates become ”women of strength,” prepared for the difficult transition out of prison, showing them ”they have hope on the outside, that’s what they need.”

”Lets face it. These days Islam is the enemy”

- Dawoud Kringle

This is one of the rough and unpleasant biases that a lot of Muslims are confronted with every day in a variety of ways. Being a Muslim in this post 9/11 world is not easy, but what are the problems they face, especially those incarcerated?  Because there is no agreement within the Islamic community as to the character of the challenges and problems, it is not easy to say. Moreover the situation is not the same all over the country, for example Oregon differs a lot from Texas and New York.  According to Musa, in the latter it can be fatal to be a white Muslim. In order to understand the problems facing incarcerated Muslims in New York City, a basic understanding of the racial makeup of incarcerated Muslims can be useful. Within New York City prisons approximately 85% of Muslims are of African-American origin. The majority of the last 15% is Latin Americans, but the immigrant Muslims population is on the rise.

“People are constantly saying tolerance and all religions are treated equally, well, let them live up to that.”

- Dawoud Kringle

One of the problems encountered in the prison system is the question of Halal meals. Access to Halal food is varied across the country.  Some point out that Halal meals are not provided by the prisons and that because the Muslims are not Jews they are not allowed to eat the kosher meal that are provided by the prisons.  This can be particularly frustrating because the cost to the state of a Halal meal is only twice the price of a normal meal and half the price of a Kosher meal, making it difficult to understand why the state would not provide it.  The Imams we met with reported a more accommodating situation in New York City Prisons which are obliged to provide Halal meals by court mandate and fulfill that obligation satisfyingly and even go to quite some lengths in order to respect the four recognized religions             (Christianity (Protestants, Catholics), Judaism and Islam). Often this policy is followed by allowing the prisoners to make the Halal meals themselves.

”If you are a Muslim you are viewed differently.”

- Mika’il DeVeaux

Muslims are often viewed by prison administrators as just another gang and with great suspicion. Do they constitute a threat to security? Though the suspicion is not always voiced it is definitely there and it is something that Muslims have to deal with, both inside and outside prisons. This bias makes some Muslims be discreet about announcing their religion, both to prison authorities when they enter prisons, but also to parole boards when they get out again – something neither Jews nor Christians have to consider. Though there is disagreement on the issue, some Muslims involved in the prison system believe that since the 11th of September 2001, they have felt more threatened.  In one particularly egregious case, a female prisoner found razor blades beneath her pillow. In combination with the same challenges faced by practitioners of other religions: requirements of discipline, prayer, etc.; living the life of a faithful Muslim can be quite challenging. 

”Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands clear from error.”

- Askia Muhammad

Finding the time and space to pray is not simply a matter of personal strength. Sometimes the system within the prisons has glitches, or even what seem to be institutionalized barriers to prayer. DeVeaux mentions that within New York State prisons you can only pray in congregation in certain areas and these areas are often closed; outside of these areas it is not allowed to congregate in groups larger than six persons. Kringle points out that it is often the guards that have to announce the prayer time, and escort the prisoners to the praying area, so if the guards do not do this or do it late, the Muslims miss out on part or all of the Juma prayer. Prayer, the daily connection with God, is one of the most important spiritual parts of a Muslim’s life and restrictions and hindrances on the prayer constitute a serious challenge to faithful Muslims. In another story of problems and abuse, a prisoner affiliated with organized crime who converted to Islam in prison received 8 years of consecutive isolation by the Court Officer, who cited his Jewish faith as grounds for the extreme punishment. There are numerous examples of Muslim volunteers who want to come in and help the prisoners with their problems, but are often not granted access to the prison system.

 “If you see a woman walking with half of her body hanging out of her clothes, the first thing you think of is not her spirituality or towering intellect.[When interacting with a woman wearing a hijab] you have to deal with her on a spiritual level.”

- Dawoud Kringle

What about gender? Do  the challenges change if you are a woman instead of a man? Muhammad noted that women often have more issues than men.  He guessed that around 90% that have been sexually abused at one point or another.  Assem has also observed the significant issues faced by the women with whom she works: around 90% of the women are in need of alcohol and drug counseling as a consequence of addictions and failing family structures. Muhammad also points towards another difference between the genders that he sees, that men have an easier time because they, as the natural leaders of Islam, are more studious than the women. That doesn’t mean that women are not important.  On the contrary, they are very important as society lies at their feet in the sense that they teach the children.  However, for Imams this means there is a lot to do in the realm of teaching their female congregants the value of their role and its critical responsibility in maintaining a well functioning society.

Another observation made is the high number of homosexuals in the female facilities. According to Muhammad, up to 90% of the women are homosexual to varying degrees.  It is not unheard of for women to meet their lovers during prayer meetings or lectures.  In addition to being distracting, this violates many Muslim’s interpretation of leading a life following the example of the Prophet. For him, this is a problem that is approached by preaching chastity, modesty, dignity and virtue. He sees the unnatural environment of a women-only environment as the primary cause for this behavior. It can also result in inappropriate behavior such as aggressive sexual advances towards the Imam.  For some this problem is easily remedied. By allowing women to the Jumu’ah in female prisons, the problem of sexual tensions between inmates and the Imam are relieved.  However, it may be that many of the women are not homosexual per se, they are just in need of some physical attention and care and many of them marry and have families when they get out of prison. Prayers for women lead by women may have also have the advantage of providing the inmates with a more empathic atmosphere. However, whether this is possible or allowed is quite disputed. 

”The chaplains are the only group doing corrections. We put the C in correction”

- Askia Muhammad

”The correctional system doesn’t correct anything”

- Dawoud Kringle

The limitations of the prison system are not solely relegated to the inmates.  Imams and other religious leaders regularly encounter significant challenges associated with working in a prison environment.  Benefits taken for granted outside prison walls are not always offered.  The hired chaplains must exercise significant caution when formulating their sermons.  They are not allowed to ’rock the boat’ too much.  They are also frequently reminded that, though they are employees of the correctional facility, they do not have the same kind of power or paycheck as the correctional officers.  Their relationships with the correctional officers also frequently leave something to be desired.  The chaplains depend on the guards to give them access to the inmates that they are serving.  However, they have relatively few tools to ensure the guards fulfill their responsibility.  In addition to these tensions, not every prison hires an Imam to conduct services and classes.  More remote prisons may only receive the services of a volunteer once a month, as is the case with Musa and the prison he works with.  One must ask the question, is a correctional system broken when much of the correctional effort relies mostly on volunteers?

Is the situation in New York City representative to the rest of the country, is the city a microcosm, or is it more the exception? The answer must be both. With the two interviews from Oregon to put things into perspective, we see that the many of the problems facing the incarcerated Muslims in New York, be they male or female, probably exist throughout the whole country – for example, the Halal vs. Kosher meal.  In other areas, NYC prisons are probably the exception – for example, the required tolerance towards the respect of Islam. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to the prisons in general and incarcerated Muslims in specific, the situation becomes very complex and diverse.

It is safe to say that Islam does provide significant support to prison inmates.  We have also observed that the challenges faced by Muslim men and women are considerable and diverse across the country and across gender lines and often springs from prejudice. Though it is always easy to point at the problems of the system without making suggestions of solution, we point towards important and diverse actions being taken across the country to improve the lives of incarcerated Muslim men and women. There is significant potential for idea exchange. The court mandated equality in the New York prison system could provide groundbreaking change in Oregon. Organizations such as The Legal Aid Society do a lot of work to improve the conditions in prisons for all the inmates. Female leadership in female prisons might alleviate some of the tensions in the New York women’s facilities.

A direct and concrete suggestion that could end with some direct and beneficial result is the establishment of an inter-prison network. What we have observed is that what some prisons do well, others do not – there is big potential for idea and experience exchange between the prisons, but the opportunity and structure for it is lacking – the prisoners pays the price for this lacking.




Interviewed person:

Dawoud Kringle

Askia Muhammad

Mika’il DeVeauz

Layla Assem




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HIA Program:

United-states United States 2006


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