Facts and Fictions about Islam in Prisons

Islam in Prison report cover

Facts and Fictions about Islam in Prisons: Assessing Prisoner Radicalization in Post 9/11 America

This report assesses the radicalization of Muslim prisoners in post-9/11 America. In the last decade, Muslim prisoners have been scrutinized for ties to terrorist and other extremist organizations, not to mention characterized as both a “threat” and a “danger” to national security, due to the influence of foreign jihadist movements. However, closer scrutiny shows that these fears have failed to materialize—indeed, despite the existence of an estimated 350,000 Muslim prisoners, there is little evidence of widespread radicalization or successful foreign recruitment, and only one documented case of prison-based terrorist activity. Nonetheless, some prison systems have implemented an aggressive posture toward these inmates and have made suppressive tactics their bedrock policy. This approach unfortunately overlooks Islam’s long history of positive influence on prisoners, including supporting inmate rehabilitation for decades. Moreover, Muslim inmates have a long history of using the court system to establish and expand their rights to worship and improve their conditions of confinement. Hence, a closer look at “life on the ground” turns the prevailing discourse on its head by demonstrating that Islam generally brings peace to inmates and that the greatest “threat” posed by Muslim inmates is not violence, but lawsuits.

Political concerns are a driving force for inquiry into the radicalization of Muslim prisoners, and elected officials themselves have sometimes proved to be a hindrance to acquiring a better understanding of the issues. Competing political interests cloud the discussion by injecting inaccuracies about Muslim prisoners, inaccuracies rooted more in speculation and fear than in solid data. Particularly revealing are the three major post-9/11 congressional hearings held on the topic of prisoner radicalization, where public officials and others under oath have repeated these inaccuracies. The political fear-mongering and lax fact-checking reveals the urgent need for more qualitative and quantitative study, as well as the need to distinguish proof from propaganda.This report contributes to the discourse by analyzing how Islam impacts inmates by focusing on three primary objectives:

  • Overviewing the political concerns about radicalization and highlighting factors that both promote and prevent it, as distilled from data on prisoners;
  • Providing an account of Islamic outreach and its impact on inmates and prison culture;
  • Positing that to the extent radicalization occurs in prisons, it has less to do with foreign influences and more the grievances about domestic matters, and American prisoners themselves are responsible for organizing subversive activity

These findings reveal that radicalization to the point of adopting violence is a rare event. But to the extent that it does occur, it corresponds to concerns about the conditions of Muslims in the United States rather than to recruiting efforts launched by foreign networks in Muslim-majority countries. Although this latter hypothesis has proved irresistible for some, cases to date show that radicalization in prison has little to do with groups like al-Qa’ida, Saudi-based charities, or other foreign sources. This skewed view overlooks the great deal of fuel for radicalization that prisoners and at home, including racism and religious discrimination, which bear more on an inmate’s thinking. Moreover, inmates themselves are the single most important factor for the spread of extremism. As one researcher states: “Die-hard extremists need little proselytizing from Wahhabi clerics from abroad. They are already prison radicals of the first order, many of whom are fully capable of radicalizing other inmates on their own.” The influence of these already radicalized inmates is magnified by policies that restrict Islamic religious leaders from entering prisons and a de facto hiring freeze at the federal level. These distinctions are key to understanding how extremism spreads and how penal policies contribute to the problem.