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Homegrown: Islam in Prison

Is radical Islam growing in America’s prisons?

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Drawing on the views of imams, prison converts to Islam, law enforcement, chaplains and other experts, this film examines the Islamic faith in America’s penal system. This film 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?

Hands of inmate in reflection

The complexities of 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.   The case added to the national debate on how Islam is taught 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 homegrown terrorists?


Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization
From the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, 10/2006

Senate Committee Hearing
Are terrorist cells forming in U.S. prisons?  Testimony of Dr. Gregory Saathoff, 9/16/2006
Indictment "U.S. vs JAMES
Consipiracy to commit acts of terrorism. California Grand Jury, 10/2004

The film traces the men charged with this 2005 plot in Los Angeles, 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 outside Sacramento, California in November 2004. Allegedly, Washington recruited two others to his cause once he was released.

The JIS episode is a 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 become integral to overall U.S. national security policy? Or are the actions of this small isolated JIS group just a blip on the radar?

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