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Limited spiritual support in Virginia prisons as number of Muslim inmates grows

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By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tamer Mohsen carried his Koran through the metal detector of this medium-security prison outside of Richmond, raising his arms to be patted down by a guard. When the inspection ended, Mohsen walked a familiar route: through Powhatan Correctional Center's narrow, dimly lit hallways, past barred cells and security checkpoints.

He made his way to the prison's chapel, where murals of the "Last Supper" and the Crucifixion were concealed by light-blue bedsheets. He'd come here, as he does twice a month, to lead Friday prayer services for more than 40 Muslim inmates, many of them converts, and try to moderate their embrace of a new and unfamiliar faith.

As the number of Muslims in the Virginia prison system has grown to an estimated 2,200, the state has come to lean increasingly on volunteer Muslim chaplains like Mohsen, a 35-year-old lab technician who was born in Egypt.

The role the Muslim chaplains play is crucial, because prisons can be a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, said Asghar Goraya, executive director of Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.

But the relationship between the Virginia Department of Corrections and minority faith leaders has long been mired in one of the state's most glaring anachronisms.

Because of a 200-year-old interpretation of the state constitution that bars Virginia from doing any faith-based hiring, it is the only state where prison chaplains are contractors, not state employees. And until last year, the department maintained contracts only with Protestant chaplains. Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains could visit correctional facilities to minister to Virginia's 32,000 inmates, but they received no funds from the state.

"The department has been living in the past. No other state in the country is so far behind the curve," said Larry Coleman of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

Then, last July, the Department of Corrections issued its first subcontract to a non-Protestant group: a $25,000 award to Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.

"After years of work, our existence was finally acknowledged," said Goraya, 62, a retired engineer who has been volunteering in Virginia prisons since 1999 and who recruits other chaplains by holding open houses at Richmond area mosques. (The Department of Corrections runs background checks on the chaplains before allowing them to lead services behind bars.)

Still, the $25,000 contract hasn't been enough to hire a single full-time chaplain, he said, let alone combat the growing number of Muslims who practice a muddled, sometimes radical, version of Islam behind bars. Although Goraya does not describe Virginia prisons as hotbeds of extremism, several inmates have written to him in recent years about their plans to renounce their American citizenship and move to the Muslim world.

"These are prime targets for al-Qaeda recruiters," said Goraya, who alerted prison authorities and wrote back to the inmates, urging them to reconsider.

"Think of what you're leaving behind," he told them. But he said he never heard back.

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