Writer's Blog

Finding Islam in prison

Aug 16, 2017

In recent decades, the United States has been under a “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mentality when it comes to imprisonment. The U. S. Supreme Court has left the question of prison sentencing to the near-complete discretion of legislatures, while placing little constitutional constraint on how long inmates can be held in solitary confinement. 

This hands-off approach by the court runs parallel to federal and state lawmaking that has ratcheted prison sentences upwards-only, making criminal sentencing in America something of a runaway train.

While American criminal justice doles out some of the harshest prison sentences in the world, there are a host of negative cultural impacts on society. Given that the vast majority of inmates are ultimately released back to the streets at a rate of over 700,000 annually, the “throw away the key” approach fails to take into account the social burden on communities to which these former prisoners return.

The overarching message of my anthology, American Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam, is that problems in prison are not isolated from society, and unlike the Las Vegas slogan, what happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. Prisons are not neatly cornered off from society, but rather, are partners in toxic relationships with the communities to which ex-prisoners return.

Against these sinister cultural developments, the book juxtaposes the quest for God and religious conversion. More specifically, widespread conversion to Islam over many generations has made prisons an important factor for the growth of Islam in America. The book concludes with policy prescriptions based on the notion that prison reform is not just about justice for those on lockdown, but communities on the outside as well.

One example is the serious health conditions suffered by prisoners, like HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted diseases. Often enough, these illnesses are spread by some released inmates when they return to their communities. Additionally, mental illness in prisons continues to be poorly treated and poses a special burden on communities when these prisoners are released. For the state, mentally ill prisoners are expensive to house, likely to face extra punishments in prison, and are likely to recidivate.

As mentally ill prisoners disrupt the order of prison administration, one might only fathom the effect when released to already-stressed communities.

This work, moreover, illustrates how violence in prison often spills over into communities in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes it is less a spill since prison gangs are notorious for orchestrating hits against individuals outside of prison. Gender violence in prison is another related problem that gets absorbed by communities and families, and translated into domestic sexual violence.

This violence along with negative economic, political, mental, physical, and health impacts, taken as a whole, denote that prisons perpetuate keeping underclass communities, underclass.


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