U.S. prisons: Breeding grounds for radical Islam?

by Karen L. Willoughby |

(Democracy Now/screen capture)

WHEATON, Ill. (Christian Examiner) – Islam is growing among inmates held in U.S. prisons, but opinions differ as to whether radicalism is a factor.

Europe has a much bigger problem with radicalized Islamic inmates than America, said Manny Mill, a 25-year prison ministry leader. He referred to the recent shooting in Copenhagen, Denmark, by Omar El-Hussein, 22, a man Danish police knew to be a radical Muslim. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, they did not know he would become violent when he was released from a prison two weeks before he attacked a synagogue and free speech event at a cultural center.

"We have many Muslims but I don't see they are from the radical breed here," said Mill, executive director of the Koinonia House National Ministries, based in Wheaton. He was referring to prisons in Illinois and Indiana, where he does most of his personal outreach, though his leadership is national.

The Communications Management Units in Marion, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana, essentially are federal prisons-within-prisons, whose populations are more than two-thirds Muslim. Both were opened by the Bureau of Prisons to monitor all internal and external communictions with each high-risk prisoner sent to either.

Mill's words were echoed by a chaplain at Angola Prison in Louisiana, the largest prison in the nation.

Angola at one time was the bloodiest prison in the nation because of inmate-on-inmate crime, but that was before Warden Burl Cain asked New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to start an extension center at the prison.

"We all get along here," said the Angola chaplain not authorized to speak to the press. "We even have some Muslims taking Bible classes."

But others, also knowledgeable about U.S. prisons, disagree and suggest America's correctional facilities are becoming breeding grounds for the radicalization of Muslims.

Joy Brighton, women's rights advocate and author of "Sharia-ism is Here: The Battle to Control Women and Everyone Else," wrote an article that appeared Nov. 21 in The Daily Caller, an online news source.

"Back in 2006," Brighton wrote, "then-FBI Director Robert Mueller prophetically described the radical Islamist conversion machine operating throughout U.S. prisons to a Senate committee. He said that prisons were a 'fertile ground' for Islamic extremists, and that they targeted inmates for introduction to the militant Wahhabi and Salafist strains of Islam."

An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 inmates – primarily African Americans – convert each year to Islam, she wrote, quoting from a Huffington Post article, and 15 percent of the total U.S. prison population – 350,000 inmates – are Muslim.

"Prisons are churning out converts to Islam who are taught they are righteously entitled to control the religion, speech, and dress of family, co-workers and strangers," Brighton wrote. "The key to conversion success is clear. Our government has been contracting and paying [radical Muslim groups] to screen and assign Muslim prison chaplains for at least eight years."

Patrick Dunleavy agrees. He is familiar with the New York prison system, teaches on terrorism and is author of "The Fertile Soil of Jihad: Terrorism's Prison Connection." He was interviewed last year for The Clarion Project, which has as its tagline, "Challenging Extremism, Promoting Dialogue."

Prisons routinely give access to Islamic extremist imams, and stock library books and videos that promote radical Islam, Dunleavy said.

Part of the problem is the lack of knowledge some correctional officials have "as to the radical theology of certain forms if Islam," the terrorism expert continued. "Without that knowledge, they lack the ability to discern between literature calling for a holy life and literature called for jihad against individuals."