─Are Prison Conversions Breeding Solid Citizens or Religious Radicals? ─
Radical Islam has spread throughout Europe. But will this militant mindset become “homegrown” and threaten the United States? A special in the America at a Crossroads series, Homegrown: Islam in Prison examines a crucial question: are U.S. prisons incubators for radical Islam and terrorist ideology, or is the rise of Islamic conversions behind bars a rare catalyst that is redeeming lives? The one-hour documentary airs nationally on PBS Monday, November 26, 2007 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).
Homegrown: Islam in Prison is one of the wide array of documentaries commissioned as part of the celebrated America at a Crossroads series. This initiative was designed to create an in-depth, provocative series of films exploring the challenges confronting the world post-9/11. The first 11 films in the series aired on PBS April 15-20, generating a strong audience response and critical acclaim.
Homegrown: Islam in Prison draws on the views of imams, prison converts to Islam, law enforcement and chaplains and other experts to examine the Islamic faith in America’s penal system. Homegrown: Islam in Prison illuminates the dichotomy surrounding this issue: is the teaching of Islam in prison providing meaning and direction to what had previously been lost lives, or is a distorted Islam fostering an extremist ideology here in America?
The documentary illustrates how opinions on both sides of the issue stand in stark contrast to one another.
Stephen Denny, former FBI agent and member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, states his case plainly. “Prisons are [going] to play a role, just as any fertile ground for recruiting jihadists plays a role,” he says in the film. “Where ever there is any marginalized population, and I mean anywhere – the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa or South America – there is going to be recruiting in that area, and the United States . . . prison system is no exception.”
Meanwhile, an African-American imam who is the former supervisory chaplain of the federal prisons, cites his experience. “Those people who know the history of law enforcement and corrections in this country ─ many of them non-Muslims ─ will tell you the Muslim inmate has been a positive benefit for whatever prisons they’ve been in,” says Imam Frederick Thaufeer al-Deen.
This debate is fueled in part by the current state of U.S. prisons. America has the largest rate of incarceration of any industrialized country ─ with some two million Americans behind bars ─ as well as a high rate of imprisonment among African-American males. Our prisons are so overcrowded and under-funded as to be unable to offer meaningful rehabilitation programs. The prisons are rife with a culture of gang violence, with few refuges for inmates. Convicts are stripped of all identity upon being incarcerated, and prison gangs often provide an identity for individuals. In this culture of mayhem, the teaching of religion became a lifeline for many; Islamic converts looked to the prison conversion of Malcolm X as a model.
Islam in prison came to the fore in the United States through the disruption of an alleged terrorist plot in Los Angeles in 2005. Prosecutors charge the plot was hatched in prison by a group of Muslim converts. Viewers meet lawyers and others involved in the case. It was this case that sparked a national debate on the impact of teaching Islam in our prisons, as well as on the American approach to incarceration itself. Has an overcrowded prison system which provides little in the way of rehabilitation, and ample idle time for inmates to embrace radical ideologies, become a breeding ground for the enemy within?
The film traces the lucky break ─ a dropped cell phone which enabled authorities to learn of the motives of a series of gas station robberies ─ that led to the cracking of the alleged L.A. plot. The men charged are part of a group calling itself Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheech, which translates to Assembly of Authentic Islam, shortened to JIS by law enforcement. The group plotted to strike U.S. military facilities, Israeli national interests and synagogues in the Los Angeles area around the Jewish high holidays. The leader of the group was Kevin Lamar James, imprisoned for robbery. One of the group’s pivotal adherents, Levar Haney Washington, swore an oath of allegiance to James and JIS just prior to his release on parole from Folsom State Prison in November 2004. Allegedly, Washington recruited two others to his cause once he was released.
Homegrown: Islam in Prison explores Washington’s troubled background and conversion to the teachings of Islam. He became radicalized in prison, where neither state nor federal correction officials have the resources to monitor the religious teachings directed to inmates.
The JIS episode is an intriguing case study for the larger question of Islam and its influence in the American prison system. Leaders at all levels of government and society are wrestling with these questions: can correctional officials restrict an inmate’s access to religious teachings and services without violating the inmate’s Constitutional right to freedom of religion? Do the allegations in the JIS case outweigh the many instances of positive Islamic conversion in prison? And should prison reform ─ so long neglected at all levels of government ─ become integral to overall U.S. national security policy?
Homegrown: Islam in Prison is part of the acclaimed series America at a Crossroads, created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB developed the initial concept for America at a Crossroads in 2004, with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production. Homegrown: Islam in Prison is part of an anticipated series of specials following the premiere week of America at a Crossroads in April 2007. The series has a major interactive Web presence at www.pbs.org/crossroads. Funding for the series was provided by CPB.
Homegrown: Islam in Prison was produced by Ginny Durrin, the Academy Award-nominated head of Durrin Productions, Inc. The executive producers for America at a Crossroads are Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. The series producer is Leo Eaton. Funding for Homegrown: Islam in Prison was provided Durrin Productions, Inc. by CPB.
WETA is the third-largest producing station in the public television system and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation’s capital. WETA productions and co-productions include The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal, Avoiding Armageddon, American Valor, Reporting America at War and documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including, in September 2007, The War. Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, visit the Web site at www.weta.org.