Nation of Islam Extends Its Reach Behind Prison Walls
Followers preach provocative mix of discipline, separatism
A lean, light-skinned black man sits upright on a metal folding chair. Decked out in a pressed shirt, a cable-stitched sweater, and a bow tie, R. Khalil hardly fits the image of an inmate housed here at the high-security Maryland House of Corrections.
Mr. Khalil, whose rap sheet ranges from robbery to attempted murder, is aware of the contradictory picture he presents. He used to run with a tough crowd in Baltimore's blighted inner city, where drug dealing and violence figured prominently in his past. A clean-shaven look and impeccable diction were foreign.
"Black men didn't have any images we could draw from," Khalil says.
But while serving time for his first conviction, he learned about the Nation of Islam and its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.
"I joined the Nation of Islam during my first time in prison," Khalil says, leaning forward, his arms braced on his knees, his hands folded. "The time [here] and conditions wear you down.... [We're] grasping for better ways of living life."
"The Nation of Islam made me feel like a person of worth more than any time in my life," Khalil adds. "Mr. Farrakhan was the closest representation of manhood."
Like a growing number of the black men who are serving time, he is drawn to Farrakhan's powerfully articulated message of black pride.
Setting out requirements for strict discipline and moral behavior, the Nation of Islam promises prisoners a path to a productive life on the outside as well as the security and sense of strength derived from belonging to a "nation."
But its influence on everything from prisoner conduct to agitation for better treatment has raised concerns of prison guards and religious groups alike. While the message is often positive, many acknowledge, it also has the ability to foment trouble among an already volatile population.
Supporters, from some corrections officials to black community groups, credit the Nation with raising hope, elevating standards, and strengthening family life for many American blacks.
But critics contend that Farrakhan's teachings - more about politics than theology - threaten to radicalize prisoners. They blame him for militant indoctrination of black youth who feel abandoned by American society. Farrakhan's is a racist, separatist movement, they say, whose message has particular appeal for a group that feels disenfranchised.
"We see the prisons are being used as a new form of slavery," Farrakhan said last week in an interview with Monitor contributor Luix Overbea. Laying more blame on the "white establishment" than the criminally charged, the minister contended that "blacks are being trapped into going to prison through crack and cocaine. The government is planting it in the black community, and then it arrests these people and puts them in prison, and then it puts them in forced labor."
The most recent Justice Department data show that some 2.7 percent of the adult population in the United States is under correctional supervision - a number triple that of 1980. "Black males are eight times more likely to be in prison than white males," says Allen Beck, chief of the department's corrections statistics program. Indeed, one-third of black men in their 20s are in prison or on probation.
Religious groups have long devoted considerable effort to reaching these inmates. They have met with some success: Back in 1991, Mr. Beck's office estimated that one-third of all inmates had joined an officially authorized religious group. And according to spiritual leaders and prison administrators, that proportion is growing quickly.
Farrakhan, among other religious leaders, is keenly aware that spiritual renewal often plays a prominent part in the lives of those behind bars. In his thousands of speeches and numerous books, he preaches self-reliance: Blacks must pool their financial resources, produce their own food, create their own businesses and jobs, police and reform their own people. The ultimate, he writes in "A Torchlight for America," would be a release of all black inmates as the foundation for a new African country.
Among inmates, his recruiting has not been easy. His redemption-through-responsibility program is often not sharp enough to cut into the hard edge of criminals who regard "doing time" as a rite of passage. Khalil concedes this. He also underscores that a man's jail-house devotion to Farrakhan's teachings does not preclude his abandonment of them once he is released.
Khalil says his own return to prison is "a result of my deviation" from Farrakhan's teachings. Landing a radio job at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where he broadcast the minister's speeches, did not keep him from the street. Once again, he landed in trouble.
"The movement has grown tremendously since I was last in prison," reflects Khalil, who seeks new members by mentoring inmates. His "course materials" - including the Koran, the Final Call (Nation of Islam's newspaper) and tapes of Farrakhan's teachings - are sent from the organization's Chicago headquarters and other outlets.
One such outlet is the Pyramid Bookstore near Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, Farrakhan's "A Torchlight for America," a tract found in prisons, is sold out. It is also unavailable at the tape shop downstairs, where 750 cassettes of his speeches line one wall and videos of Farrakhan are found. It's out of stock at the neighboring black bookstore and at all other places around the city that usually carry it. The merchants say the demand has never been greater.
Cradling his own copy of the book while visiting the prison mosque, Khalil says that "no person in prison can become an official registered member of the Nation of Islam," but he can prepare to do so by ritual and orientation: praying, eating sparsely, and attending study groups.
In the penal system, Farrakhan continually butts heads with bureaucrats, especially in state and local correctional facilities. When he meets resistance, he sues.
Justice Department records date the Nation's presence in federal prisons back to 1984. Since Farrakhan's success in attracting hundreds of thousands of American black men for the Million Man March in Washington last October, "there has been a burst of growth" in his inmate followers, says Susan Van Baalen, a chaplain for the religious services branch of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Ms. Van Baalen has computed that their membership rolls in federal institutions soared by 40 percent in the past seven months.
The march "was a turning point for Farrakhan followers who have recently started to shape up their own agenda," reports Taha Tawil, a Sunni Muslim Imam at the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Islamic adviser for the Iowa Department of Corrections. Even in his rural state, where the number of incarcerated blacks is far below that for New York, Maryland, Illinois, or California, states with a much larger black population, Farrakhan is a force. "Since January," Imam Tawil says, "the Nation has been allowed to operate officially in the state's eight institutions."
Khalil and other prison residents read about the march in newspapers, listened to it on the radio, and watched it on television. The interest will leverage into greater pressure to accord the Nation of Islam rights in prisons, and lead to more inmates embracing Farrakhan, Khalil says.
Farrakhan's impact is tough to quantify. His organization is guarded about statistics. Its apparent growth concerns most established professional proselytizers, Muslims and Christians alike.
The Virginia-based Prison Fellowship, a 20-year-old national organization founded by Watergate ex-convict Charles Colson, has documented the growth in American, and especially black American, converts to Islam. It estimates that with 5 million or more Muslims in the United States (the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations puts it at 6 million), Islam may soon be the country's second-largest religion. Mr. Colson's group counts 1 out of every 15 American blacks as Muslim by birth or conversion.
Many Christian black leaders see such growth as a crisis. The burgeoning number of blacks who have been incarcerated - in 1995 the nation's overall prison population posted the biggest gains in history - is a restive audience for Farrakhan. "Through fiery preaching and inflammatory statements, Farrakhan's Nation of Islam has grown to be the most visible Islamic sect in the black community," assert Adam Edgerly, associate minister at Christian Evangelical Fellowship in Atlanta, Ga., and Carl Ellis, associate pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Les Porter, a volunteer counselor for the Pennsylvania Prison Society, claims that it encourages belligerence. Among the inmates who are attracted to Islam, "you can almost assume that the more aggressive type is part of the Nation of Islam," he says.
"Other Muslim sects are more self-restrained," adds Mr. Porter, who ministers on weekends at the Bethany Baptist Church, a pillar of the black community in Philadelphia.
Porter is worried about what he calls "the encroachment of Islam" on what has been largely Christian territory: prison conversions. Many evangelical leaders have reported to the Prison Fellowship their run-ins with Nation of Islam followers who disrupt Christian Bible classes and prayer meetings to ask probing questions about the relevance of Christianity - "the white man's religion" - to black Americans.
Yet Porter admires the fact that Farrahkan's appeal goes beyond what the Nation of Islam can do to restore black prisoners' dignity and purpose while serving time. Farrakhan and his prison emissaries promise a strong support network, with housing and job opportunities, once the inmate is released.
It is not just black Christians who feel embattled. Sunni, Shi'ite, and other Muslim faithful often spurn the Nation of Islam: They are put off by Farrakhan's diatribes against whites, Arabs, and other non-blacks and his rejection of traditional observance of Islamic rituals.
"Dignity does not have to be based on race-bashing," comments Humam Abdul Malik, a Sunni Muslim who corresponds with and visits prisoners at the biggest jails and penitentiaries in the Washington metropolitan area. "Farrakhan preaches that the European is the devil. Penal institutions don't want people to come in there and antagonize. I get letters from his followers with all this nationalist stuff - how the devils do this and the devils do that. It's not productive at all. Planting those thoughts in a mind can make the environment dangerous."
An ex-convict himself, Mr. Abdul Malik is keenly aware of the power of belief in self-transformation on those who are physically confined. "It has to change," he says, "but it can't be through rage or hostility. It has to be through rational thinking. The Nation of Islam's teaching is distorted to the point that you're going to be confused."
"Leader Farrakhan straddles a fence," Abdul Malik continues. "He plays down the rhetoric, and the next thing you know, he's back at it. He plays on peoples' emotions and frustrations. The Nation of Islam's racism and separatism are not seeds of growth and development, but seeds of destruction."
Comments from the law-enforcement community are mixed. Some call criticisms of Farrakhan hyperbolic.
Chaplain Van Baalen asserts that the Nation of Islam's challenge to the system's "thin blue line" of security personnel is more perceived than realized. They are "aggressive recruiters," the chaplain concedes, but they are not permitted to overstep their bounds: two chapel and study meetings per week. "We do not allow them to perform the military drills they would like to do - they haven't gone to war. We exercise reasonable control over what they can and cannot do, and that requires good correctional managers."
Many experienced prison officials credit Nation of Islam inmates with instilling better values. "Their standards are very high," says Jeff Carter, the coordinating chaplain at New York's Attica prison. "They're doing a fantastic job with black men. I won't take that away from them."
The organization's methods and message trouble others.
Prison administrators have experienced the Nation of Islam at its most litigious. When it was blocked in its attempt to organize in a state facility near Dover, Del., the Nation of Islam went to court against the Delaware Correctional Center. The court instructed the prison to hire a Muslim spiritual leader, but he proved too conventional for Farrakhan's followers. So the Nation of Islam filed a second suit. After the group won the right to have a Nation of Islam member hold services, the authorities found they provoked anger among inmates, and the warden canceled the program. Once again, the Nation of Islam sued.
Antonio Barboza, a lieutenant in Baltimore Jail's Central Booking and a black pastor at the Priceless Son Worship Center in Baltimore, has been a longtime observer of Farrakhan's followers. Before he took his current job, he worked as a guard at the Maryland Penitentiary.
Mr. Barboza contends that by pitting black against white, Farrakhan undermines security inside the four walls and endangers society-at-large by helping to produce a more strident person once released.
Farrakhan's organizers first try to build a power base by calling on inmates to advocate better living conditions, greater visitation rights, and the like. Barboza is suspicious of Farrakhan's call for strict discipline: While the regimentation may develop more self-respect, it also emboldens those who may not otherwise challenge authority. He calls it "the quiet before the storm, bringing peace in the short term with an explosion in the long term." He adds that the advocacy soon gives way to agitation: "They have a militaristic feel, and an anger toward the system, toward America."
Khalil dismisses all of this talk as a "deliberate action on the part of state officials to present" the Nation of Islam as nefarious. "Fear can cloud people's judgments," Khalil says. His leader's success, he adds, can be measured in the relatively small number of Farrakhan devotees who are repeat offenders.
Data are not available, but the organization's zero-tolerance policy for criminality has earned it a reputation for being an effective reformer.
Khalil is one of an undetermined number of exceptions to the Nation of Islam's claim that its followers stay out of trouble. In his second prison term, Khalil is again a loyal Farrakhan follower, even a spiritual leader at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup.
Khalil's experience is typical, says Mr. Porter, who has spent years as a counselor in Pennsylvania corrections houses and after-release programs. "They embrace it for protection when they're inside the system, but once they [are released and] hit the old neighborhood, they put all that religion and discipline aside."
But Khalil contends that Farrakhan's teachings have permanently filled a gap. Through with his reckless street days, he says, he can now "represent and delineate the struggles of black people through Minister Farrakhan's perspective."
Many Christians fault themselves for allowing that perception of a gap to grow. Porter charges that the black church's weakness has given rise to the Nation of Islam's strength.
"I am ashamed that the black church has gotten a little bit too comfortable focusing on the surroundings and the building, but not enough to reach out to those not within the circle." He is frustrated too, he says, that black churches are not doing enough to meet ex-convicts' needs, unlike the Nation of Islam, whose strong networks provides help for inmates once they leave the prison gates.
And, he adds, the Nation's message of black separatism resonates with many young prisoners. "To many of the incarcerated young men who are bent on a hostile attitude, taking a stand as a nation is very appealing," Porter says.
Farrakhan's prison organizers "help out inmates who are in need," Khalil says, from distributing the Koran, the Muslim holy book, to instructing how to file pro se briefs, or self-filed claims, to the court. All this, Khalil affirms, supports the Nation of Islam's primary goal "to build an independent community of people."
The black struggle seems to have a very different meaning to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow Coalition crosses racial and religious barriers. "Our community is characterized by either extreme hostility or indifference," he laments. Perhaps the most prominent living figure among American blacks, Mr. Jackson says the fight for equality and integration has been a slow and exasperating one. He says the response to Farrakhan's call to the Million Man March was "about alienation, pain, and crying out for a solution."
But he dismisses the idea that the Nation of Islam is so adept at tapping into the rage that Farrakhan is a force to reckon with. "Extremists with power are really dangerous," Jackson says. "Farrakhan has an extreme point of view, but does not have the power to do anything about it. The power to affect public policy, that's a power of real concern. The No. 1 growth industry in America is jail, and the ones who have the real power are the people who build them."
Far from undermining the order that exists both inside prison and beyond, Farrakhan's proposed withdrawal from society "does not threaten the status quo," Mr. Jackson says. Farrakhan's weakness, he says, is that he fails to use precious resources (black engagement) "to negotiate with society to open up." Hardly a political threat, he says, the "real story about the Nation is its value on moral virtues. Most of Farrakhan's speeches are about personal behavior."
Back at the Maryland House of Corrections, Khalil is trying to develop useful job skills. He works five days a week as a graphic engineer in the prison's computer center, earning $2.30 a day. He cautions that his attire of pleated pants and shined shoes should not leave the impression that prison is pleasant.
"One thing we don't want to do is glorify," he admonishes with a wry smile. "I got a six-digit number."