It’s time for afternoon prayers and the Muslim inmates in this California state prison are doing what was once forbidden — having an Islamic worship service. People couldn’t gather in groups to teach and do practices of religion. Of the 3,832 inmates at Solano prison, the chaplain estimates about five
Percent are practicing Muslims. The prison doesn’t track religious identity partly because it’s so fluid. And religious expression is a barometer for how Islam has evolved within the U.S. penitentiary system. Hey guys, I’m Shreen. And today we’ve travelled to Solano Prison in Vacaville, California to
Explore how the world’s fastest-growing religion has had to fight to find a home in prison. When I became Muslim, I was given a set of principles: Do this. Don’t do that. When in doubt, don’t. That’s Jessie Burleson, who people here know as Hasani. He’s been
In prison for 31 years. Hasani is one of the practicing Muslims at Solano prison, and they’re part of the millions of people behind bars in the U.S. In fact, the United States has the largest prison population in the world.
The more than 2.3 million people it had incarcerated by the end of 2017 were more than any other developed nation. That number includes inmates at federal, state, and county prisons. And it’s growing. In a place where your housing, meals, and recreation time is highly constrained by rules, finding a way to
Practice your faith can be difficult. These inmates have figured out a way to infuse their faith into their sentences. One of the things that started me seeking something different was, I was looking at the people that were around me — who were older than I was — who had been
In prison longer than me, and who had been on that same negative self-destructive path. And me not being satisfied with what I was seeing in them. And at that time I started going to religious services. It didn’t matter if it was Muslim, Christian, Jewish. I went seeking a better way and I believed
In God. So I knew that the only way I was gonna change was through God. He’s just one of the Muslims that Solano chaplain Muhammad Ali interacts with on a daily basis. Ali is an Imam who spent four years at this prison, helping people like
Hassani explore their faith. He believes it can be an important part of their rehabilitation. Religion is important to inmates because it connects them to something bigger than their circumstance. You have people who you know where you’re here in prison and there’s a lot of things you can’t control, whether it’s your
Your eating, it’s your living condition. It really helps human beings feel essence of connectedness to something beyond what’s right in front of them. But Islam’s journey in penitentiaries has been complicated by prison culture and legal challenges. Though nationally Muslims make up 1% of the U.S. population, that number is
Expected to double by 2050. Some of that growth specifically comes from inmates converting to Islam behind bars. Islam is known for having a particularly strong presence in prisons. In fact, more people convert to Islam per capita than any other religion. Nationwide, Muslims make up 10 to 15% of prisoners. Ali even said
He has one to two inmates convert to Islam monthly, though that’s not his goal. What makes those statistics resonate more is knowing how difficult it was to get Islam accepted as a recognized religion within some prisons. The prison administration, through their custody officers, wouldn’t allow groups of
Muslims that congregate over three, and when they did they would break, they would break them up. That’s Abdul Raoof Nasir, and he spent 30 years using his Islamic faith to help inmates and correctional institutions. He considered it social justice work and an active part of his faith. Back when he started
In the 1970s, he says the prison system was full of subtle discrimination against Muslims. Some Muslim inmates at this prison sued in 1996 for greater access to religious services. Their demands included hiring a full-time Muslim chaplain and the ability to attend Friday prayers without penalties,
Like demerits for leaving work. Eventually, they did receive a full-time Imam and their other demands. Prison officials dispute this account. They say Muslim inmates were never denied access to their religion, and instead the constraints were reflective of staffing and organizational issues that were
Resolved. Nationwide, the legal pushes continue today. A 2013 report says that Muslims submitted the most religious discrimination complaints out of any other religious group in prison. Islam and Muslim organizations in prisons, for the most part seem to be powerful because they’ve
Been there a long time. They have challenged the status quo of the prison system itself legally and physically. That quality of questioning power is easily identifiable with one of the religions most notable converts. Malcolm X, his narrative is prominent and so that attracts people toward Islam. And then
The reformative value that they find in that the hope that it gives, that I can survive in prison, Malcolm survived in prison. Malcolm X’s legacy still resonates today more than 50 years after his death. While serving a prison sentence, then-named Malcolm Little converted to the Nation of Islam
In 1952. He found mainstream Islam years later and felt it was much more racially inclusive then the Nation. But as Muslim we will be Muslims. I will try and teach the religion of Islam among the so-called Negroes and make them Muslims. Aside from spiritual guidance and the ability to change your life around,
Another reason Nasir says some incarcerated people are drawn to the faith is for another reason entirely: how prisons are organized. A central organizing principle in prison is containing the threat of violence. Inmates are housed and classified according to the risk of violence they pose. Here at Solano, it means they’re housed dormitory-style.
Those that pose a higher risk, are housed themselves like this with armed guards. In their downtime, the crew that inmates spend time with matters because they’re the ones that also offer protection. So what does any of this have to do with practicing Islam in prison? Well Nasir explains that your brothers
In the faith can actually help protect you behind bars and that source of support transcends race. Islam does challenge the strict rules of race in prison, because if a person of another ethnic group besides African American becomes a Muslim then he’s embraced in Islamic community.
And he’s not only embraced, he’s protected from outside pressures that other groups may place against them. Being in prison isn’t necessarily that type of situation to where you know you need to join a group to be safe. That’s not — hasn’t been my experience, but
I would say being a part of a community in prison is definitely beneficial in that regard. What he is really describing is support. And the support that incarcerated Muslims require is different than their free brethren. In fact, there are several things about prison that changed how Islam is
Practiced. There’s no quran app, no call to prayer from your cell phone, and being Muslim here is about survival in a completely different way than it is outside. It does afford some opportunity for inmates to think about their rehabilitation, think about meaning in
Life, think about who they want to be as a person while here or when leaving here. Just because religion might help some people survive prison doesn’t mean they’ll continue the practice after release. Nasir has seen people let go of the
Faith when they get out. But Hasani, who’s just days from release, has his sights set on making Islam’s most important journey for Muslims, the pilgrimage called Hajj. So I think for me that making the Hajj as, as one of my goals
Primary goals, if I keep that as a primary goal, that I will be successful and not only standing on the path but doing everything that I need to do in order to get off parole, save some money, and make the Hajj. I
Learned so much about incarceration in this story. If you want to learn more check out Ear Hustle the podcast out of San Quentin Prison. In the meantime, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe and let us know in the comments what prison stories you want us to cover next.