Conversion to Islam in U.S. prisons

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Conversion to Islam in U.S. prisons refers to the contemporary high rate of conversion to Islam in American prisons, for which there are a number of factors. It is the fastest growing religion in U.S. prisons, where the population is 18 percent Muslim (compared to 1 percent for the general population); 80 percent of all prison religious conversion are to Islam.[1]


Black Muslim organizations, such as The Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple of America, formally began prison outreach efforts in 1942.[2] However evidence suggests that Muslims may have comprised a small fraction of the inmate populate in the United States as early as the 1910s.[3] New research brought to light an African immigrant inmate at San Quentin State Prison named Lucius Lehman, who was proclaiming himself to be a Muslim religious leader during his incarceration from 1910-1924.[3] Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad himself was incarcerated in the early 1940s when he was convicted of draft evasion.[4] Elijah Muhammad's organization would later gain its most famous convert, Malcolm X, who took interest in Black Muslim movement while incarcerated.

Rate of conversion to Islam[edit]

In addition to immigration, the state, federal and local prisons of the United States may be a contributor to the growth of Islam in the United States. J. Michael Waller claims that Muslim inmates comprise 17–20% of the prison population in New York, or roughly 350,000 inmates in 2003. He also claims that 80% of the prisoners who find faith while in prison convert to Islam.[5] These converted inmates are mostly African American, with a growing Hispanic minority.[6] According to a 2003 estimate by FBI, there are 350,000 Muslims in federal, state and local prison, about 30,000 - 40,000 more being converted every year.[7]

Concern and characterization in United States[edit]

Muslims prisoners have been characterized as a danger or threat for radicalization in the media.[2] Yet despite the fact of there being over 350,000 Muslim inmates in the United States, little evidence indicates widespread radicalization or foreign recruitment.[2] Rather, research has shown that Islam has a long history of positive influence on prisoners, including supporting inmate rehabilitation for decades.[2] An early example of this type of characterizations from the media is a article in The New York Times that alleged Imam Warith Deen Umar, Islamic chaplain for the New York State prison system, was reported to have praised the September 11 attacks; prompting members of Congress to call for an investigation.[8] The article states that in a 2004 report, the Justice Department faulted the prison system for failing to protect against "infiltration by religious extremists." However, the report made clear that the problem was not chaplains, but rather unsupervised inmates.[8] In January 2010, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Senator John Kerry, released a report that stated as many as three dozen formerly incarcerated individuals who converted to Islam in American prisons have moved to Yemen where they could pose a "significant threat".[9][10] However no documentation or verifiable evidence was provided to back up the committee's report (even though the report stated the individuals traveled to apparently learn Arabic)[9]—rather it was simply accepted and invoked as evidence.[2] Another example of such characterization comes from Annenberg Professor of International Communication J. Michael Waller, who asserted that outside Islamist groups linked to terrorism are attempting to radicalize Muslim converts in prison, but other experts suggest that when radicalization does occur, it has little to no connection with these outside interests.[11][12][13]

Notable converts to Islam in prison[edit]



  • Terry Holdbrooks - Former GTMO guard, later became an author and public speaker.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bershidsky, Leonid (2017-03-27). "How to Produce Fewer Terrorists in Prison". Retrieved 2018-02-04.
  2. ^ a b c d e Spearlt (2013-01-25). "Facts and Fictions about Islam in Prison: Assessing Prisoner Radicalization in Post-9/11 America". Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Retrieved 2020-07-08.
  3. ^ a b Bowen, Patrick (Spring 2013). "'The Colored Genius': Lucius Lehman and the Californian Roots of Modern African-American Islam". The Graduate Journal of Harvard Divinity School. Retrieved 2020-08-05.
  4. ^ Curtis, Edward (2009). Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975. University of North Carolina Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780807877449.
  5. ^ United States Senate, Committee on the Judiciary , Testimony of Dr. J. Michael Waller October 14, 2003
  6. ^ SpearIt, Raza Islamica: Prisons, Hip Hop & Converting Converts August 3, 2010 (revised February 27, 2013).
  7. ^ Thomas Albert Gilly, Yakov Gilinskiy, Vladimir Sergevnin (2009). The Ethics of Terrorism: Innovative Approaches from an International Perspective (17 Lectures). Charles C Thomas Publisher. ISBN 9780398079956.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b Wakin, Daniel J. (2009-05-24). "Imams Reject Talk That Islam Radicalizes Inmates". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-05.
  9. ^ a b Esposito, Richard (2010-01-19). "Report: American Ex-convicts In Yemen Pose 'Significant Threat'". ABC News. Retrieved 2020-07-08.
  10. ^ Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Home Affairs Committee (2012). Roots of violent radicalisation: nineteenth report of session 2010-12, Vol. 1: Report, together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, Volume 1. The Stationery Office. ISBN 9780215041647.
  11. ^ a b "Statement of Van Duyn, Deputy Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, before the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment". 2006-09-20. Archived from the original on May 12, 2009. Retrieved 2009-06-05.
  12. ^ "Testimony of Mr. Paul Rogers, President of the American Correctional Chaplains Association". United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. 2003-10-12. Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved 2009-06-05.
  13. ^ "Special Report: A Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Selection of Muslim Religious Services Providers – Full Report" (PDF). US Department of Justice. April 2004. Retrieved 2009-06-05.

External links[edit]