By Juan Galvan
Islamic Horizons recently talked with Professor
SpearIt, author of American
Prisons: A Critical Primer on Culture and Conversion to Islam (2017) and professor
of law at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.
He has taught for the Prison University Project
at California’s death-row facility, San Quentin State Prison; taught corrections
law at Saint Louis University School of Law; and serves on the advisory board
of the Prison Program, which offers courses to both inmates and staff.
He is currently active in the American Bar
Association’s Corrections Committee and its work to restore Pell Grant Funding
I.H. What can you
tell us about Latino Muslims within the established Muslim prison communities?
A number of sources contend that Islam is growing among incarcerated Latinos. There
are no reliable statistics about their number or denominational affiliation. I assume
that a majority of them gravitate toward Sunni Islam, as is the case on the
outside. I haven’t heard of any Latino Muslim-majority community in any
institution, which suggests that their numbers are relatively small and most
likely fold into the African American Muslim community.
heard of Mexican/Chicano gangs beating up converts for “betraying” the race. There
are three factors at play here: (1) gang life often combines issues of race and
religion; (2) their conversion is often accompanied by a cultural foray that
provides direct insight into their cultural identity, including Arabic’s
contribution to Spanish; and (3) a way to distance themselves from
Christianity, especially Catholicism, and express their revulsion of its
colonial legacy — including the penitentiary itself — in the Americas.
sometimes inspires inmates to become educated and therefore better decisionmakers.
Muslim prisoners have lower recidivism numbers than non-Muslims. One hopes that
they will experience a similar success when transiting back into their communities.
we should start seeing more Latinos embrace the longstanding Muslim tradition
of using the courts to sue prisons. Muslims generate the greatest number of religious
complaints of any other religious group in prison. As more Latinos convert, I
believe that we will see more Spanish surnames listed as the plaintiff.
I.H. What do you think about CAIR’s lawsuit, filed on Aug. 26 last, against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on behalf of three Muslim inmates — two of them Latinos — that alleges discrimination against Muslims in LA jails?
P.S. This is just one more case in the long history of
violating the equal protection laws. In short, Latino Muslims are being forced
to prove themselves the way African American Muslims did in the 60s and 70s — not
because they are Latino, but because prisons continue to discriminate against all
Muslims. Case law reflects the fact that incarcerated Muslims have always had to struggle to enforce their
rights. The 1st Amendment says what it says, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims
enjoy full rights. Although Islam has been deemed a “genuine religion,” prisons
still classify some Muslim groups as SGT (security group threats), which means
that they are disenfranchised of these rights altogether.
I.H. Are you
familiar with the Latino Muslim Survey, which found that most Latino Muslims
are female converts and that few Latinos embrace Islam in prison? Why do you think
this is the case?
P.S. I would venture to say that Latinos view this more as
an issue of cultural apostasy. Islam in prison is still viewed as a “Black
religion,” so the infrastructure isn’t there in the same way. There is a legacy
of Black prison converts, but not so much for Latinos. It’s different on the
outside, where actual Latino mosques offer the type of support, resources and
infrastructure that prisoners lack. We’re now are at the beginning stages, but
I suspect that the numbers will keep increasing.
I.H. Do you think
that African-American prisoners’ lack of da‘wah to Latinos is one reason
why there aren’t many Latino Muslim prisoners?
P.S. Honestly, I think it’s more of an issue of the
cultural constraints coming from Latinos themselves. Based on my correspondence
with them, it seems that Black prisoners welcomed them and that prison was the
place where some of the lessons of the Five Percenters, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, were translated into Spanish. Being Mexicano runs deeps,
and for some this might seem to be incompatible with being Muslim.
I.H. Do you have
any thoughts about “prislam” and Latino Muslims?
P.S. That term denotes the meshing of prison culture, gang
attitudes, structures and mores with Islamic ideas. The current lack of Muslim
chaplains creates space for prisoners to give khutbas and provide other
services. Unfortunately, this opportunity is often twisted to advance criminal
or other subversive behavior in the name of Islam.
This became more serious after 9/11, particularly because
the feds’ refusal to let chaplains enter prisons created a leadership vacuum. State-level
prisons often don’t have enough resources to hire qualified Muslim chaplains
and thus must rely on community volunteers or prisoners to lead the services. I
have advocated that prisons work with seminaries to turn interested prison
converts into authentic Muslim chaplains; however, progress in this regard has
been very slow.
I.H. Would more
inmates convert if there were less prislam? Does the racial and ethnic segregation
in prison result in fewer Latino Muslims converting?
O.S. And very quickly, yes. Latinos lack the natural groups
within the Black prison community, where Islam is a prominent part. In some
states like California, which segregate living quarters by race, it is much
harder for them to enter the Muslim fold. I think that your question is right
I.H. Are there
many White converts in prisons? If so, what’s their relationship with other
P.S. Some Whites do covert, but to what extent this occurs remains
unclear. I’ve heard of Aukai Collins (1974-2016),
an Irish-American also
known as Aqil Collins, who converted some time ago and authored My
Jihad (2002). More recently Gregory Holt, a White Sunni Muslim imprisoned in
Arkansas, won a 2014 Supreme Court case to grow a beard. He’s also involved in
another case that’s before a federal appeals court. He is arguing that it’s
unconstitutional to make all Muslims worship together because the Nation of
Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths are so different from Sunni Islam that Sunnis need their own worship
I.H. What kinds of
resources are there for interested Latino prisoners?
State and federal prisons typically have libraries, many of which contain the
Qur’an, the writings of Islamic scholars and other traditional works. Moreover,
prisons usually have authorized distributors of religious materials — beads,
oils and other items — that inmates can buy through authorized vendors.
Prisons usually allow inmates to receive halal and other sharia-compliant
foodstuffs from friends and family.
for formal religious services and other religious gatherings are usually posted.
Some prisons insist that only Muslims can attend Muslim services, whereas others
allow inmates to explore various faith traditions and attend multiple services during
addition, all sorts of courses, including Islamic and Arabic courses, can be
done by mail if the prisoner can pay the necessary fees. I don’t know of any
Latino Muslim community outreach efforts that specifically target Latinos.
I.H. What kind of
resources would be beneficial?
P.S. Well, that may depend upon the
prison system. For example, federal prisons tend to house immigration
violators, more of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Thus, they would
benefit from having more Spanish-language cassettes, books, magazines and so on.
Of course it would help if Congress
reinstated Pell Grant funding for prisoners, for those funds could be used for
vocational training and to train interested converts to become qualified chaplains
and thereby fill in some of the leadership gaps both now and in the future.
Having access to the Internet would
be a huge benefit, given the current dearth of available Spanish-language or
Latino-directed materials. Prisoners cannot easily hit up Google, for prisons remain
governed by archaic ways — including no Internet. Also, prisons could become
more proactive by hiring qualified Muslim chaplains rather than relying on
I.H. What would you
like I.H. readers to know from your book?
That American prisons are an important piece of American Islam. Although the
total number of Muslims in this country is small, the impact of Islam behind
bars is the stuff of legend. In fact, prisons are an important part of Islamic
history in America. As more Latinos learn about the history of Muslim Spain and
other cultural links, Islam’s impact will continue to grow. I believe that
Latino Muslims, following in the footsteps of their African American forbearers,
are slated to usher in an Islamic renaissance behind bars.
(latinomuslim.com), editor of Latino
Muslims: Our Journeys to Islam, advocates for including Latino Muslim voices
in the mainstream Muslim narrative. He encourages Muslims to learn more about this
specific minority identity.