After 9/11, Inmates Search for True Nature of Islam


The mosque is in a modular building in the corner of

the maximum-security prison's recreation yard, right

next to a church named for the patron saint of

impossible causes, St. Jude.

Under the eyes of guards on the ground and in gun

towers, hundreds of inmates, most serving long

sentences, make collect calls at a bank of pay phones,

take open-air showers, play football or enter the

mosque for afternoon prayer.

Since Sept. 11, more prisoners than usual have been

stepping into the mosque.

Religion plays a central role in American prison life,

with Islam the most influential in many prisons. At

this particular prison, the Eastern New York

Correctional Facility, a castle-like structure in

Ulster County, about a quarter of the 1,000 inmates

are Muslims.

Islam has grown significantly as a factor in prison

life in the past generation, said Robert Johnson,

chairman of the department of justice, law and society

at American University, and the author of "Hard Time:

Understanding and Reforming the Prison" (Wadsworth,


The declining prison focus on rehabilitation, the

increase in minorities behind bars and the increase,

through immigration and global communications, of

Islam's influence in the West have all contributed to

the growing importance of the religion in prisons, Dr.

Johnson said.

David L. Miller, the prison superintendent, said about

150 inmates regularly attended services or classes on

Arabic language, Muslim tradition and the Koran.

Most of the prison's Muslims are African-Americans who

are converts to the religion, and almost all of them

converted in prison. "Not too many of these guys were

too religious before they came here," said Imam Yasin

A. Latif, the prison's Muslim chaplain for the last

two decades,

When they became religious, however, is of little

concern to Mr. Miller, compared with the fact that

they are. The superintendent is a proponent of

religion among prisoners for what he says is its

ability to "create a community within a community,

which allows an old con to put an arm around a young

con and tell him to cool down."

Since Sept. 11, the Muslim world within the Ulster

prison has not been static, said 12 inmates who spoke

for several hours on a recent afternoon. For example,

there has been a 50 percent increase in participation

in services and classes at the mosque.

This has come about, the inmates and Mr. Latif said,

as Muslims in prison struggle to reconcile their own

beliefs with what happened on that day and try to

demonstrate that prisons are not breeding a new

generation of revolutionaries.

"It has been a significant awakening call," Mr. Latif

said of Sept. 11. "The Muslims on the fence at the

time of the tragedy felt they had to make a statement

for the true Islam."

Rising from prayer in the mosque was Mika'il DeVeaux,

46, a longtime congregant who is serving 25 years to

life for murder. He had converted shortly before the

murder, Mr. Deveaux said, but became more devout after

being jailed.

The landscape of jailhouse Islam has changed in the

past year, he said.

"Whatever goes on in what we call `the street' or `the

world,' " he continued, "does affect us in here."

Mr. DeVeaux said that in the aftermath of Sept. 11,

Muslim inmates were not treated as outcasts by either

guards or other inmates. But, he said: "There was

obviously more scrutiny, and our conduct was monitored

more. The administration was going to be concerned,

and rightfully so. They paid the mosque a visit to

make sure that everything was O.K."

The situation was stable, Mr. DeVeaux said, adding

that that had not always been the case in past crises.

"You should have been here during the Iranian

revolution in 1979 and the Lebanon truck bombing in

1982," he said.

The swelling crowds in the mosque in the past year

have grappled with the issue of the true nature of


"We have an understanding of the enormity of the evil

that was done," Mr. DeVeaux said, "and we talked a lot

about whether this was right. But it was based on an

understanding of Islam. What happened was an evil

representation of the religion."

Coming to such understanding is not always easy in a

maximum-security prison, said Dawd Abdul-Malik, who

converted to Islam as a child and is in prison after

what he described as "catching a murder charge coming

to the aid of a fellow Muslim."

Mr. Abdul-Malik was working as a clerk in the mosque

at Five Points, another maximum-security prison in New

York State, when he heard on the radio that planes had

hit the World Trade Center. He went out into the yard,

he said, where a group of non-Muslims were


"They were angry about being in prison," he said, "so

to them, any form of destruction they see, they think,

`Hey, that's a blow for us!' "

With so much anger, parsing out the truth about the

nature of evil is sometimes problematic, Mr.

Adbul-Malik said, and Mr. Latif agrees.

"This environment," Mr. Latif said, "produces an

abnormal array of everything."

That is why Mr. Latif has measured expectations about

what he can accomplish. "When I first came here," he

said, "I operated under this idealism that I can

change people and do everything to everybody. But that

doesn't even work out on the street."

He said he first found inmates "to be very cavalier

about repentance, but very concerned about the time,

the 20 years, that they were doing."

Despite the progressive fading of his outright

idealism, Mr. Latif said he had, in his 20 years at

the prison, seen the positive impact that Islam had

with the prisoners. Islam, he said, gives the inmates

an organizing force for their thoughts that is far

superior to the ones most had on the street. It also

gives them words and ideas to use that go beyond jail

jargon, and it makes them members of a community in

the midst of what can only be described as a surreal


So Mr. Latif sees hope in the fact that the last year

has given him many more inmates willing to participate

in services and classes.

"And there are those 1 or 2 people in 10 I can help,"

he added.


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