MONROE, Wash. — The announcement rang out across the open courtyards of the Monroe Correctional Complex.

"Movement is now open."

Men wearing baggy navy-blue sweatshirts and loose-fitting pants or jeans drifted from one building to the next. They ambled along, laughing with one another and gulping in fresh air. It's free time, when prisoners who are being held for rape, burglary, murder and other crimes can attend classes or read in the library.

A small group of men, many wearing crocheted skullcaps, filed into a windowless room. They tug off their shoes and ease down cross-legged on thin rugs that have been spread on the floor for the service.

Prison is a tomb or a womb, they say. Either a man wastes his years on the inside and allows bitterness to rot his soul, or he uses the time to quiet the rage or fear or desperation that landed him in prison. Anthony Waller, like many Muslims at Twin Rivers, converted to the faith while behind bars. That changed everything, he said.

"If I wasn't a Muslim I'd still be in closed custody," Waller, 31, said, referring to prison facilities that strictly control prisoners with violent pasts.

"Or, I'd be dead," he said.

Waller, who doesn't expect to see freedom until 2033, attends a Muslim prison service every week with dozens of other men who have converted to the faith since being locked away. These "prison Muslims" are among the fastest-growing religious groups in U.S. correctional facilities.

A movement that began in the 1970s under Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to evangelize inmates has evolved into one of the most effective religious rehabilitation agendas in the U.S. Imams under the Nation of Islam continue to draw converts, but most Muslims in prison today are Sunnis, said Lawrence Mamiya, a professor at Vassar College who has studied Muslim prison ministries.

Mamiya estimates that about 10 percent of all prison inmates have converted to Islam. Using his estimate, about 1,800 of the state's 18,000 inmates would be Muslim.

About 1 percent of Washington residents claim to be Muslim, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That's the same as the national average.

For most men behind bars, their conversion is temporary. Just one in five who convert to Islam while in prison continue on in that faith once they are released, Mamiya said.

That makes experts wonder whether "Prison Islam" isn't a religious movement but a convenient infrastructure for a prison gang that affords members special privileges, including rugs and sticks of incense for their cells.

Chaplains who supervise Muslim services say most men are genuine in their faith.

As of August, Muslim inmates in Washington prisons have received halal meals, said John Barnes, a chaplain at McNeil Island Corrections Center. That change came after a rash of lawsuits nationwide by Muslim prisoners who claimed that they were given vegetarian meals instead of meat slaughtered as required by Islamic law.

Meals specially prepared for religious inmates are usually better quality than standard fare, said Walter Taylor, a 32-year-old inmate in Monroe. He is a devout Muslim, but said he had to claim other faiths with the prison system in order to meet requirements in the Quran for the practice of Islam.

Before the prisons began serving halal meals, Taylor registered as Jewish in order to eat kosher meals, which have similar dietary restrictions as halal meals.

He has also registered as a Wiccan for the privilege of having scented oils in his cell.

"Then I became a Sikh so I could get a turban," he said, motioning to the thin skullcap he wears to Muslim services.

Each privilege is necessary to fully practice Islam, said Taylor, who converted to the faith in prison 11 years ago — about a year after he was incarcerated. He began studying Arabic about four years ago, and said he is now fluent. Other Muslims in the Monroe prison are dabbling in the language, too, creating a community bound not only by faith but also by tongue.

A 2006 report by George Washington University and the University of Virginia found that tight-knit communities of Muslims in prison are ripe for radicalization, and could easily become terrorist cells. A shortage of trained, federally approved imams has left openings for prisoners themselves to lead Muslim congregations, without supervision through chaplain programs.

A Monroe inmate acts as full-time imam for Muslims in the prison. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Most of the inmates who convert to Islam are African-American, and are attracted to Islam for its discipline and belief in equality, said Faheem Siddiq, a longtime planner for the city of Everett who has acted as a Muslim chaplain in state prisons for more than five years.

"In Washington state, from Walla Walla to McNeil Island, the majority of these guys are low-income African-American converts who have an opportunity in a sober environment to try to reflect and change their lives," Siddiq said. "Islam offers them that opportunity."

Terrorist plots have been hatched in prisons, but that is a problem largely in Europe, where many Muslim prisoners are of Middle Eastern or Arab descent, Mamiya said.

"With African-Americans, it's very different," Mamiya said. "They have their own problems they want to concentrate on."

Muslim communities in prisons also provide some of the same benefits of gangs, Mamiya said. They protect one another, but they don't "demand extortion in order to be initiated," he said.

"Many of the men don't like the idea of the Christian 'turning the other cheek,'" Mamiya said. "Islam emphasizes self-defense as an ethic, so they prefer that."

There is also a strong sense of responsibility and discipline.

"In Christianity, Jesus Christ died for sins," Taylor said. "But in Islam, there's no scapegoat. I can't say that the devil made me do it."

Taylor and other Muslims say they pray five times each day. The constant reminder of their faith helps keep them on a straight path, Taylor said.

"Being a Muslim is the hardest thing you could possibly do," said Phil Thomes, 32. "Just being a Christian, it wasn't enough. Islam is a total way of life, which is good because I needed extreme change."

Most men who convert to a religion undergo a dramatic change while in prison, Barnes said.

"It changes his character," Barnes said. "He becomes more responsible, he's not self-centered. … Instead he's others-centered. He becomes a team player."

"I've seen that over and over again," he said.

Thomes has been in prison for 12 years. He converted to Islam shortly after he was incarcerated, but he said he took him nearly a decade to begin avoiding prison gangs and the trouble that comes with them. Since then, he said, his life has changed.

"A lot of people look at me like I am my crime," he said. "But I know I'm not that guy anymore. I became a brand new person."

Be the first to know - Sign up for Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments