Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own soul.
– Qur’an 13:11 or 8:53
Abdel Ameen, Halfway House. Richmond, Virginia. © Bryan Shih
“Transitioning out of prison back into society is difficult for anyone, but the scarcity of Islamic centered re-entry resources often adds to the obstacles confronting prison converts to Islam. […] A lot of the people I photograph are from groups and communities that are on the margins, and that does something to their psychology.”
From a quick squint at Shih’s portfolio, Prison Converts to Islam, it is obvious he has traveled widely and photographed in San Quentin Prison, California as well as in Richmond, Virginia (above). Possibly in other states too.
I have very rarely spoken about Islam in US prisons, mainly because it is not a subject I know a lot about. But that is changing.
Recently, in discussion with New York based documentary photographer Jolie Stahl (about an altogether different project of hers from the mid-80s), Stahl took the opportunity to tell me about her photographs for the book Black Pilgrimage to Islam.
Stahl is married to the author, Robert Dannin, former editorial director of Magnum Photos, and professor of history at Suffolk University, Boston Massachusetts.
The book deals with all aspects of the Islamic experience in America and necessarily covers the increase in Islamic worship within US prisons among predominantly African American populations. Figures used for Dannin’s book indicate an increase in the numbers of self-identified Muslims in New York prison facilities between 1989 and 1992 (1989 in parentheses): Sullivan Prison, 84 (112); Green Haven Prison, 348 (286); Auburn Prison, 310 (234); Attica Prison, 388 (327); Wende Prison, 125 (74); and Eastern Prison, 175 (135).
Fortunately for us, chapter seven of Dannin’s book which is devoted to prison Islam is available online, as part of the digitised version of Making Muslim Space (Barbara Daly Metcalf (ed.), 1996, UC Press).
Dannin suggests that the body-focused discipline of Islam provides fortitude despite the stark, oppressive prison environment:
“If one tries to extend the Foucauldian idea of the prison as a simulacrum of the medieval monastery, there is a realization that something has changed, because this architecture conducive to introspection and Christian rebirth has increasingly become a place of mosques and communal prayers. The predictable monastic effect has been achieved, but somewhere its content has been subverted. […] Islam’s popularity in the prison system rests in part on the way in which qur’anically prescribed activities structure an alternative social space that enables the prisoner to reside, as it were, in another place within the same confining walls.
Door to Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. © Jolie Stahl.
New York State was the progenitor for much of today’s prison-based Islamic worship. Dannin writes:
“Following the Attica riot, DOCS designated Green Haven, the scene of similarly explosive tensions, a “program facility,” where emphasis was placed on learning and rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. College courses, vocational training, substance-abuse programs, work release, and family-reunion visits resulted directly from a negotiation of inmate demands and the actions of newly appointed liberal administrators. Muslims were situated at the center of these activities …”
The community and equanimity fostered by Islam echoed the social justice priorities of the Black Panther movement. Swiftly, the Masjid Sankore at Green Haven “achieved its reputation as the most important center for Islamic da‘wa in America”. Dannin traces the understandable transition of locked down minorities from political revolutionaries to religious observers.
The Majlis ash-Shura, or high council, of Masjid Sankore at Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y., with author Bob Dannin (center left), 1988. © Jolie Stahl
Friday prayers at Masjid Sankore, Green Haven Correctional Facility, N.Y. © Jolie Stahl.