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

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 22, 2010; C01

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.

Monitoring threats

Goraya also worries about prisons that don't get regular visits from a volunteer chaplain, citing as an example Green Rock Correctional Facility in Chatham. Goraya has been to the prison, 250 miles from Richmond near Danville, just once and found the inmates uninformed and suspicious of outsiders.

"If we could afford to send someone to the prison, we could win those guys over," Goraya said. "Instead, we're letting them learn from each other, and they grow more and more radical."

For their part, corrections officials said they remain vigilant when it comes to Islamic radicalism, relying on the Muslim chaplains and a newly created security initiative to monitor threats.

"The DOC is concerned about radicalism of every type, and we have taken the step of developing a Secure Threat Group that specifically monitors this type of threat, including gangs," said Larry Traylor, the department's spokesman.

At Green Rock, aside from an incident in which Muslim inmates complained about having to trim their beards, there have been no signs of a problem, Traylor said.

Even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Goraya's effort to win support for Muslim chaplains was largely a one-man crusade. But recently, he's found a number of allies who echo his concerns.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report warned this year that 36 American Muslims who had been prisoners moved to Yemen in recent months and that several of them "dropped off the radar" and may have connected with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In a separate report, terrorism experts at George Washington University and the University of Virginia said: "In the absence of qualified Muslim religious services providers, inmates can become attracted to radical views and the politico-religious messages coming from other inmates."

Navigating a gulf

Much of the work for Goraya and 15 other volunteer chaplains involves navigating the gulf between guards and Muslim inmates. It's an agenda challenged by the nature of prison-based Islam, in which inmates instruct one another about the faith, and most incarcerated adherents are converts.

When Muslim inmates complain that guards are not allowing them to pray, Goraya addresses those concerns with the warden.

Meanwhile, Muslim inmates sometimes claim they are not permitted to take orders from female prison guards.

"Is that really a part of the religion?" one prison employee asked Goraya, who shook his head, setting the record straight.

"We're here to preach moderation to the extremists and to defend the needs of the moderate Muslims," Goraya said.

The biggest challenge to doing that, he said, is the lack of resources. Although the $25,000 from the corrections department is a start, it is small compared with the $780,000 in state money that helps fund 14 full-time and 19 part-time Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal chaplains through the Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia.

Neither Catholic nor Jewish chaplains have sought funding from corrections officials.

"My responsibility is to provide chaplains that are Protestant Christians," said Cecil McFarland, president of Chaplain Service Prison Ministry. "We have a very good relationship with the Muslim chaplains . . . but my obligation is to my ministry."

Prayers and guidance

In early August, a week before Ramadan, Tamer Mohsen led prisoners wearing rolled-up denim jeans and blue button-down shirts in prayer at the Powhatan prison.

The men took to their knees on donated prayer rugs. By tradition, they faced east toward Mecca, overlooking bars, brick and barbed wire.

"O you who believe," Mohsen began in Arabic.

Ziyad Abdullah looked on, closed his eyes and recited the prayer in perfect Arabic.

Born Robert Brady in Richmond, he was sentenced in 1985 to life plus 10 years for killing a Muslim convenience store clerk.

His path to repentance led him to the Koran. He learned Arabic. He sent letters to the victim's family, detailing his conversion. They didn't respond.

But that didn't stop Abdullah from growing more fervent in his faith. He started leading prayer sessions, lecturing others who were considering conversion.

In three years, the Muslim population in Powhatan has grown from 30 to 80, including converts and those born into the faith. The facility now houses as many practicing Muslims as it does practicing Christians, according to the prison's full-time chaplain, the Rev. Bernard Morris.

Some convert because being part of the Muslim community provides a feeling of security, others because of the structure the faith provides.

"Christianity wasn't working for me, and I thought, 'Why should that be my only option?' " said Nasir Dixon, born Antoine Dixon in Portsmouth.

The growth of the faith caught Morris, a Baptist, by surprise. "It's been a real blessing to have the volunteer Muslim chaplains here to handle the increase," he said.

Toward the end of the prayer service, security guards entered the chapel and signaled that it was time for the prisoners to return to their cells.

Mohsen turned toward his congregation and bowed his head. The prisoners rolled up their prayer rugs and took turns shaking Mohsen's hand and wishing him a happy Ramadan.

He walked out the chapel doors, past a poster emblazoned with the words "Repent and be baptized," headed toward the security checkpoint and then across the parking lot to his car.

"I never ask these guys why they're here. I don't know if they are murderers or thieves," Mohsen said. "I just know that they're faithful and sincere, and that they welcome me each time I come."

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