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Inmates find comfort in Islam

The story of Malcolm X, who converted from a life of crime to Islam while in prison during the 1950s, is being repeated today among thousands of jailed Muslims around the country.

"Our conversion rate in prisons is high," says Warithuddin Umar, founder and president of the National Association of Muslim Chaplains in Albany, N.Y. "Ninety-nine percent of our Muslim inmates were converted in there. We call it institutional da'wa'."

Da'wa' is the Arabic word for evangelism, and American prisons are humming with various forms of it. One of its most potent forms takes place this month, the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which ends March 12.

By prior arrangement with prison dietitians, approximately 140,000 Muslim inmates around the country have specially timed meals in accordance with Ramadan, which forbids any consumption of food or water during daylight hours.

Each evening, Muslim inmates receive a bag lunch from the cafeteria containing light breakfast foods. They rise 90 minutes before daybreak the next day, eat their bagged meal, then say their daily prayers.

They perform regular prison duties during the day, then at sundown break their fast with water and dates. Then they say more prayers. After a regular prison dinner, they are given food for the morning.

Ramadan will end with an eid, a catered feast brought into the prison with the help of outside mosques. This includes a spread of fish, lamb, turkey, chicken, pita bread, salads and other Middle Eastern foods and desserts.

Other inmates take notice of such devotion, which leads to more conversions.

If they want to explore more before deciding whether to convert, they can take classes in Arabic, the Quran (Koran), the Hadith (sayings of Mohammed) and Islamic prayer.

"It's easier to practice Islam in jail," says inmate Abdul Latif (William Little), who is serving time in a state prison in Greensburg, Pa. "You don't have as much temptation to stray. You've time to study and read and go to seminars."

Latif, like most other inmates interviewed, was a Baptist before entering jail.

Like 85 percent of all American converts to Islam, Latif is black. He heard of Islam as a religion that lifts up the African-American, compared with Christianity which often is portrayed to inmates as a religion forced on slaves upon their arrival in America.

"I began to believe Islam was the truth, whereas Christianity was not the full truth," Latif said. Islam claims that Christianity and Judaism are incomplete religions, whereas Islam is the final, accurate story of God's revelation to the Earth.

Prisoners say that converting to Islam gives them an instant brotherhood among certain inmates and protection against physical attacks.

"The brotherhood is No. 1 here because we're separated from the family unit," said Bilal Abdur Rahman (Anthony Jackson), an inmate at a Pittsburgh penitentiary. "We conduct ourselves in a dignified way, and the younger men who come in here see Muslims going through their own interior battles in this institution which for the most part they're winning."

The combing of American prisons for converts was pioneered by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, after his own prison experience. He began by recruiting members for his religion among the criminals, conducting extensive correspondences with them and bestowing the surname "X."

The depressed, the poor and the down-and-out inmates, all of whom were black, readily accepted a form of Islam that elevated the black man, gave him an African heritage to live up to and a place to go after being released. Although mainstream Muslims reject the Nation of Islam's racism, they use its techniques to win over America's prison population.

Only recently has this trend changed to include Hispanics and white college students, says Ishan Bagby, founder of the Islamic Research Institute in Garden Grove, Calif. He estimates the U.S. Muslim population at about 4.6-million, which at its current growth rate should equal America's Jewish population of 6-million by the year 2010.

Muslims comprise 15 percent of Pennsylvania's prison population and 17.2 percent of New York state's inmates. Umar laments that only 90 full-time Muslim chaplains are employed nationwide, most of them in New York state. New Jersey has nine, California, 10, and Illinois, six. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, contract with local mosques to furnish part-time chaplains.

"The rate of recidivism among Muslims is higher (40 percent) than we'd like to admit," Umar said, "but it's lower than the national average."