The Nation of Islam’s Position in US Prisons


Howard Ayers, a member of the Nation of Islam, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In 1993 he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in jail. Between 1968 and 1993 the jail inhabitants of the US grew by 400%. Lawyer Thomas B. Marvell attributes this improve to legislators, who in response to rising fears, “established longer sentences or obligatory minimal sentences for large kinds of crimes and criminals.” The ‘tough-on-crime’ ideology that emerged obtained broad bipartisan assist, lending the best way to President Invoice Clinton’s ‘Three-Strikes Invoice’, which mandated life imprisonment with out risk of parole for anybody who had dedicated a minimal of three violent felonies or, in some states, drug trafficking crimes.

Ayers has been to each maximum-security jail in New York State, together with Attica Correctional Facility, the place in 1994, he joined the Muhammad Jail Mosques, an iteration of the Nation inside prisons. In 1971, Attica was the location of one of many largest jail uprisings in historical past. Within the interim years, it has been infamous for totalitarian-like surveillance of the folks incarcerated inside it. So maybe it’s not stunning that Ayers discovered himself punished for his affiliation with NoI, which has been related to radicalism, particularly in prisons.

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The Nation of Islam intertwined faith with politics lengthy earlier than the famed Attica Rebellion. In 1963, for the primary time, New York State prisons’ inhabitants was majority Black. In 1964, a landmark supreme courtroom case Cooper v. Pate dominated that jail authorities should give equal remedy to imprisoned practitioners of various faiths; in different phrases, a Black man has a proper to observe his Islamic religion in jail. Because the prisoners’ rights motion expanded within the Seventies, broader racial and political tensions spilled into the nation’s jails and prisons. In a Journal of Black Research article, Christopher E. Smith quotes C. Eric Lincoln’s characterization of the Black Muslim motion as “a dynamic social protest that strikes upon a non secular automobile.”

Nation of Islam was influential in increasing rights for incarcerated folks, each for Black Muslims and broader civil rights in jail. However, fearing one other rebellion and the ramifications of the group’s philosophies generally, authorities perceived it as a risk, partially due to its roots in organizing and activism.

Zoe Colley writes within the Journal of American Research that the Nation of Islam was characterised by Jeffry Ogbar because the “chief inspiration” of the Black energy motion and it’s inextricably intertwined with the radicalism of the Sixties. She asserts {that a} slender deal with the Nation of Islam’s impression on prisons alone is insufficient. “Historians dutifully acknowledge the group’s robust attraction to prisoners… however they hardly ever deviate from this customary narrative to think about the broader significance of the phenomenon.” That “wider significance” continues to be debated even at this time.

After the Attica rebellion, New York prisons enacted plenty of reforms, corresponding to offering an alternative choice to pork for Muslims, extra nutritious meals, greater ranges of accountability and transparency with the skin world, and a common discount of the strict regime of self-discipline that was kind of carried over from the state’s nineteenth century invention, the Auburn System of corrections.

Ayers defined to JSTOR Day by day that the model of the Nation that reemerged in prisons in 1996 was completely different from the one which existed within the Sixties. Jail authorities allowed this newer iteration of the faith underneath the situation that it act solely as a research group, Ayers explains. He asserts that there proceed to be variations between the religion’s priorities and practices inside prisons versus exterior. “Our issues are usually not the identical. We’re coping with tips on how to survive inside,” mentioned Ayers. He explains that the model of NoI in prisons acts as a information to parole hearings, self-discipline, respect and accountability, and life after incarceration.

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The historical past of NoI’s development, significantly amongst poor incarcerated Black males is effectively documented. “The jail temples assist us to grasp the energy of the NoI’s attraction inside the very poorest black neighborhoods. Racked by horrible poverty, police brutality, and excessive ranges of crime, these working-class communities expertise the very best ranges of male incarceration,” writes Zoe Colley in her article, All America Is a Jail: The Nation of Islam and the Politicization of African American Prisoners, 1955-1965. “Arrest and imprisonment was an expertise shared by a big a part of the NoI’s membership.”

In 1930 a clothes salesman in Detroit, Michigan named W.D. Fard Muhammad created NoI on the assumption that Islam, stolen from Black folks throughout slavery, was their authentic and true faith relatively than Christianity, which the motion mentioned “had sure them in each bodily and psychological chains.” Fard’s successor, Elijah Muhammad, taught “an authentic type of Islamic faith that interpreted traditionally Islamic traditions… and advocated separate Black companies, colleges, neighborhoods, and a state.”

Scholar Edward E. Curtis IV has written extensively on the methods by which NoI members research and stay in line with, “scientific and mathematical ideas derived from their prophet’s cosmological, ontological, and eschatological teachings on the character of God, the origins and future of the black race, and the start and finish of white supremacy,” relatively than in line with a non secular and supernatural understanding of God and faith. This empirical framework—combining Black nationalism and conventional Islam—by which NoI operates, has manifested in its classes of self-discipline, strict codes of conduct, and socially conservative ethics. NoI and particularly its present chief, Louis Farrakhan, have espoused anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic views. Nonetheless it’s also a faith with guidelines and constructions that teaches its followers instruments for resisting racist oppression. The complexity is plain.

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Like Ayers, Malcom X joined NoI whereas incarcerated. He embraced the religion and diligently studied African American historical past, promoted Black nationalism, and practiced his oratorical expertise. He rapidly turned a outstanding chief, ultimately turning into the Nationwide Consultant of NoI. Though Malcolm X cut up from NoI in 1964, the Nation continued rising, whereas additionally persevering with to be criticized for its controversial misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic views, and its evocations of violence.

From the quilt of The Weekly Scene, Quantity 17, Situation 4, 01-22-1972

Louis Farrakhan is maybe greatest identified for his group of the Million Man March in 1995, which attracted lots of of hundreds of Black males and boys to DC to name for elevated voter participation and to protest in opposition to gun violence. An undeniably profitable grassroots organizer, Farrakhan additionally delves into hate speech and conspiracy theories. The Southern Poverty Legislation Heart has designated the Nation of Islam a hate group, and the Anti-Defamation League name Farrakhan America’s main anti-Semite. And but, the model of Nation of Islam that thrives in jail appears to exist divorced from the controversies that dominate the discourse exterior. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a 2001 essay, the Nation of Islam is a “bundle of contradictions.”

Ayers contends that NoI is greater than a faith to those that are incarcerated— it’s a type of resistance and a information to life post-incarceration. “The Nation is a lot greater than a faith. It’s a household. We shield one another, create bonds and communication that’s peaceable. It’s about inspiring folks inside to take cost of their lives in a nonviolent, unbiased, optimistic means,” he mentioned.

Whereas serving as a New York State prisons NoI consultant, Ayers mentored many males. One among them was Jarrell Daniels.

Daniels, now 27, spent ages 18 to 23 in upstate New York prisons. Throughout his incarceration he says that he repeatedly filed grievances associated to spiritual observe violations. For the reason that Prisoner Reform Litigation Act (PLRA) handed in 1995, it has been accused by students and advocates of facilitating civil rights abuses. Daniels recounts being threatened that if he didn’t rescind his grievances, he could be punished bodily or positioned in solitary confinement. Retaliation in opposition to incarcerated folks for submitting administrative grievances is against the law, although the PRLA’s arduous necessities make it difficult for incarcerated folks to show that their (mis)remedy on behalf of the jail was motivated by retaliation.

Daniels remembers that NoI taught him tips on how to react calmly and patiently to correctional officers’ threats—nonviolently and thru battle de-escalation—in addition to tips on how to advocate for himself in parole hearings and later, job interviews. Daniels is on parole till 2023. At virtually 28 years previous, he has a 9pm to 7am curfew. The U.S. has over six million folks on some type of legal justice management, by far probably the most of any nation, by absolute numbers and by relative fee.

“What folks don’t perceive is that in jail the Nation doesn’t emphasize all of the spiritual ideology related to the group,” Daniels instructed JSTOR Day by day. “It’s actually about educating life expertise, like utilizing efficient communication, constructing emotional composure, motivating folks to create a sustainable life plan publish launch and getting ready males for parole and their eventual freedom. We’re taught to look introspectively at our personal life experiences and actions which have hindered us from main wholesome lives.”

The cover of Mohammed Speaks, Volume 14, Issue 46, 07-25-1975
The quilt of Muhammad Speaks, Quantity 14, Situation 46, 07-25-1975

Neither Daniels nor Ayers registered with the Nation after being launched from jail, lending credence to the notion that NoI is neither strictly a faith nor strictly an ideology. “[Ayers] at all times instructed me the Nation was a like a bus. You bought on at your cease and received off whenever you reached your vacation spot,” Daniels mentioned.

Membership inside NoI takes a definite kind relying on whether or not the individual is incarcerated or not, in line with Ayers. Each contain attending sermons, however members inside recount not focusing as a lot on the spiritual features, like learning the Koran, as a lot as they did on practising debate expertise to arrange them for parole hearings.

“Within the Nation we discovered tips on how to defend ourselves by advocating for our rights and never by violence. You discover ways to file grievances and problem facility insurance policies that stop folks from exercising their liberties. It prepares you for all times exterior, but in addition inside. We’re taught tips on how to peacefully reply to abuse from guards and different acts of misconduct by correctional officers,” mentioned Daniels. “I discovered to construct on the true essence of group growth. My introduction to crucial pondering, drawback fixing, and introductory information of Black historical past was by Howard and the Nation,” he continued. At this time, Daniels is learning African American Research and African Diaspora Research, with a focus in sociology at Columbia College’s Faculty of Normal Research. His 2019 TED discuss has over 2 million views and Daniels repeatedly travels to talk to younger folks and metropolis officers in regards to the toxicity of incarceration.

Black males go to jail at a fee considerably greater than that of white males. In 1990, one in 4 Black males was underneath some type of legal justice management. In 2009, one in 10 males between the ages of 25 and 29 had been incarcerated. Black males born at this time have a one in three probability of being incarcerated throughout their lifetimes. Recidivism charges throughout all races and ethnicities stay excessive, with 83.4% of people that had been launched in 2005 getting rearrested by 2014. Returning to jail after incarceration is extra doubtless than not—so a program designed to arrange one for re-entry and cut back the longer term likelihood of arrest holds apparent attraction.

Public notion and misperception round NoI proceed. For the reason that graduation of the Warfare on Terror, acts of Islamophobia are on the rise. Black males (principally), plus jail, plus Islam show fertile floor for worry in the US. Some previous adherents to NoI have denounced it for its present chief’s antisemitic and problematic statements. Elsewhere, spiritual extremism and acts of home terrorism rise. No perception system or individual, very like NoI and Howard Ayers, are static. All actions endure progressions and variations. As famous within the American Jail Newspapers assortment, NoI is “a group that may be a dwelling entity [which] typically should comply with such a course of. The metamorphosis brings to the creature its wings, and with wings it has a better sphere of motion.”

Mistreatment and abuse in prisons has far however ended, however Ayers and Daniels clarify that the bonds made, and classes discovered by NoI inside jail, permeate in and out of doors of its partitions. It is going to stay controversial in broader public discourse, however zoomed in, its members really feel its advantages.


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