donate or subscribe
Follow Us Twitter Facebook

Have anti-Muslim sentiments arrived in prison?

June 23, 2017

by Kevin D. Sawyer

In early 2016, following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks in the name of Islam, this “panel of Muslims housed inside San Quentin State Prison met over several days to discuss how some people view and label Muslims,” reads a story, dated March 1, 2016, in San Quentin News by Rahsaan Thomas. He quotes Da’ud L. Coulson Sr., who said, “Islam taught me to repel evil with that which is good” (HQ 23:96). – Photo: Rahsaan Thomas

The Central California Intelligence Center received a Suspicious Activity Report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2010. A guard reported that he conducted a search of two inmates’ cells. “Both inmates are Muslims who appear to have radical Islamic views. Both inmates have since been placed in our Administrative Segregation” (the hole).

There are many inmates in California prisons who are Muslim, followers of the teachings of Islam.

San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest prison, houses nearly 4,000 inmates, 750 of whom are condemned on death row. The Muslim community here is noticeable. At any given time, a follower of Islam can be seen wearing religious garb such as a kufi on his head.

The right to practice one’s religion sometimes comes at a price, because anti-Muslim sentiments do not only exist in the outside world, they exist in prison, too.

“It has definitely made its way into the prison,” said Abdul Raheem, 42, an African American who has been incarcerated 13 years. “In some cases, it’s blatant.”

According to Raheem, the anti-Muslim thoughts now taking place in America are mainly directed at Arab Muslims who have migrated to the United States.

“It has definitely made its way into the prison,” said Abdul Raheem, 42, an African American who has been incarcerated 13 years. “In some cases, it’s blatant.”

Raheem said cultural differences separate Middle Eastern-born Arab Muslims from North American-born African American Muslims.

“We use our culture as a measuring stick against other cultures,” said Raheem. He said Muslims who are Black and born in the U.S. have a different agenda than Muslims who have migrated to the U.S.

Rashad “Babu” Meece, a 66-year-old African American, has been incarcerated 21 years. He said that he has not directly been affected by the growing anti-Muslim sentiment but he said it is on the rise.

“I haven’t noticed it per se, but I look for it every day,” said Meece. “I expect it. Prison is a place where things happen that are unseen and unmonitored. We’re in a closed society. Nothing is seen and nothing gets out.”

Meece said the prison system in California uses agent provocateurs to carry out its anti-Muslim behavior. He said the anti-Muslim sentiment exists in prison, but it has not been pushed too heavily on the Muslim community perhaps because officials do not know what the overall reaction would be.

“It’s like a festering sore,” said Meece. “Something is going to happen because someone – perhaps a guard – is going to provoke an incident.”

“I haven’t noticed it per se, but I look for it every day,” said Meece. “I expect it. Prison is a place where things happen that are unseen and unmonitored. We’re in a closed society. Nothing is seen and nothing gets out.”

Meece said when the anti-Muslim backlash really arrives in prison, it is going to be a shock to the immigrant Muslim community, because they have been living under the idea of America being free of discrimination and the land of opportunity. He said they have not experienced dealing with traditional American racism, discrimination and bigotry that Blacks have faced for 400 years.

Inmates readily exchange information on the main line at San Quentin prison when the Investigative Services Unit (ISU), which also doubles as the Institutional Gang Investigation (IGI) unit, searches a cell, especially a Muslim cell.

In prison vernacular, the ISU and IGI are referred to as the “goon squad.”

“Ken” is in his early 30s. He was targeted by the goon squad. He did not want to be named or identified because he said he does not want to bring unwanted attention to himself. Not originally from the U.S., he and his family came to the U.S. from the Middle East.

Ken said he did not feel he was being persecuted because he is a Muslim, even though, according to him, the officers searched through his papers and nothing else.

“If that’s part of the police doing their job, it’s fine with me,” said Ken. “I’m not doing anything, so it doesn’t matter.”

It was the first time Ken’s cell was searched that week and his second encounter in several weeks where he was being questioned by the goon squad. He said he believes the first incident was a coincidence because the squad was searching two other cells in the cell block: The first cell was on the left of his assigned cell and the other cell was on the right. His cell just happened to be in between the two. There are about 400 cells in the building where Ken is housed.

Other Muslims are not convinced Ken’s situation was a random act – another reason unsolicited information for this story was provided.

“If that’s part of the police doing their job, it’s fine with me,” said Ken. “I’m not doing anything, so it doesn’t matter.”

Incarcerated Blacks who were born and raised in the U.S. have different views on police investigative tactics. Some say foreign-born followers of Islam are targeted because of their nationality and for being Muslim.

Shaka Senegal Muhammad, 49, has been incarcerated 25 years. He was born into the Nation of Islam (NOI), commonly known as Black Muslims. His parents were NOI Muslims from the time the Honorable Elijah Muhammad led the organization.

Muhammad said the anti-Muslim sentiment in America is probably affecting foreign Muslims from Arab countries and those from African Sunni Muslim countries.

“It (anti-Muslim sentiment) doesn’t apply to me as a Muslim follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” said Shaka Muhammad. “For one, we don’t practice the customs and culture of Arab Muslims, nor do we practice their ideology.”

Muhammad said most people usually associate the Nation of Islam, or the NOI, with Minister Farrakhan, who, he said, has abandoned the true doctrine of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Black supremacy.

According to Muhammad, the anti-Muslim sentiment has arrived in prison but it does not affect Black Muslims because they do not identify with Arab Muslims.

“It (anti-Muslim sentiment) doesn’t apply to me as a Muslim follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” said Shaka Muhammad. “For one, we don’t practice the customs and culture of Arab Muslims, nor do we practice their ideology.”

Muhammad said because there are so many Black converts from other religions to Islam in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the department is more concerned with those who identify with Sunni or Shiite Islam.

“I stand totally committed as a Black Muslim (NOI) who believes in the separatist doctrine and the uplifting of Black people,” said Muhammad. “The Black Muslim doctrine is specifically for Black people.”

Meece’s words also reflect what Muhammad has observed. Meece said there are those in the U.S. who hate immigrant Muslims from the Middle East. He said some Americans fear them and when the anti-Muslim backlash really comes to prison it will primarily affect the immigrant Muslims. “Then they will see what xenophobia is all about,” he said.

Meece said the issues that Middle Eastern Muslims face in their region of the world are not germane to Blacks’ struggle in North America. “Their argument is not our argument,” he said. He said Blacks who are Muslim also follow the teachings and beliefs of their African ancestry.

According to Meece, following Islamic teachings began for Blacks in North America in the 20th century when Elijah Muhammad brought the Nation of Islam to the forefront of Black consciousness. He said many Black followers of Islam also study the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Warith Deen Muhammad, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. “We take our theme from them,” he said.

Raheem concurred. He said North American Blacks have different cultures from Middle Eastern Muslims, which may be why Blacks who follow Islam at San Quentin do not feel the weight of religious persecution.

Meece said the issues that Middle Eastern Muslims face in their region of the world are not germane to Blacks’ struggle in North America. “Their argument is not our argument,” he said.

Shaka Muhammad falls on the far end of the spectrum in terms of his religion and ideology. Inside his assigned cell he displays an NOI flag – a crescent moon and star facing left which distinguishes the NOI from other factions of Islam, where the moon and star face the right. There is also a portrait of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, a black and white picture of Marcus Garvey and a UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) flag to keep him grounded in what he calls his “pan-African, Black nationalist roots.”

Shaka Muhammad said Black Muslims (NOI) believe the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is the last messenger for Black people, and Middle Eastern Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad was the last prophet for Arabs.

“As a Black Muslim (NOI), I’m different in the sense that the prejudice that the Muslim world experiences with suicide bombings and having an extreme view of Islamic law – I don’t have those issues,” said Muhammad.

Muhammad said one reason he is not approached about his faith is because he does not “walk around with that Middle Eastern attire.” He said NOI followers do not wear turbans, beards, long robes or kufis so they are not positioning themselves to be approached or mistaken for Arab Muslims.

“When people see them (Middle Eastern Muslims) walking around like that, they often think of (Osama) bin-Laden,” said Muhammad. “We’re clean-cut and groomed. We wear business suits and bow ties or straight ties.”

“As a Black Muslim (NOI), I’m different in the sense that the prejudice that the Muslim world experiences with suicide bombings and having an extreme view of Islamic law – I don’t have those issues,” said Muhammad.

Shaka Muhammad said NOI Muslims were taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad that they live in a civilized society and must go among people looking civilized.

From Shaka Muhammad’s perspective, anti-Muslim sentiments have not made their way into prison for NOI Black Muslims. He said it may be the case for those who follow Middle Eastern Muslim doctrines and concepts or for those who wear Hezbollah and Hamas tattoos.

Aaron Taylor, 50, has been incarcerated 21 years. He is an African-American from the Los Angeles area. He said anti-Muslim sentiments have always existed in prison.

“It was here before 9-11 but it wasn’t as pronounced and blatant like it is since 9-11,” said Taylor.

Taylor said in 2002, while serving time at another prison, he was placed in administrative segregation (the hole) because he was identified as a threat to the safety and security of the institution. He said one of the Islamic chaplains reported him as being “radical.”

Taylor acknowledged CDCR policy that says it does not tolerate discrimination, but he said then there are those who work in the department who do not adhere to the policy. He said if officers or members of their families were affected by the events of 9-11, they tend to have a more dim view of Islam.

Aaron Taylor said anti-Muslim sentiments have always existed in prison. “It was here before 9-11 but it wasn’t as pronounced and blatant like it is since 9-11,” said Taylor.

According to Taylor, many CDCR corrections officers are reserves who served in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He said they also have family members who served or fought in wars in those countries, and that experience has tainted some of their views.

“While they say they went to fight for our freedom and rights, they come back and try to suppress mine,” said Taylor. “For some, it’s blatant. For others, it’s not.”

Like Meece and Raheem, Taylor said, “For guys from the Middle East, it’s worse.” He said when they (Middle East Muslims) pray together in the open, it is considered a provocative act.

Taylor said in 2009 officers at a state prison in Centinela, California, came to his cell and removed all of his books and papers. He said they were ordered to do so by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) of the FBI. He said after three and a half months, on the first day of Ramadan, the JTTF returned his property with an apology.

“We received information that you were bringing Crips and Bloods together to radicalize them,” Taylor said a JTTF agent told him. He said the agents later realized he is a Sufi Muslim, “all about peace.”

The general consensus among Muslim inmates at San Quentin is that there is a dislike for their religion that intensifies based on their country of national origin and sect of Islam.

Send our brother some love and light: Kevin D. Sawyer, P-22673, San Quentin State Prison, 2W-95U, San Quentin CA 94974. This story, written in March 2016, first appeared in the San Quentin News.

Tags

Filed Under: Prison Stories
Tags:

Leave a Reply

BayView Classifieds - ads, opportunities, announcements