Back in 1958, William Fulwood, one of eight Muslims at Lorton Reformatory, was denied permission by reformatory officials to practice his Islamic faith. Fulwood took the issue to court, and in 1961 the federal courts ordered Lorton to lift the ban against Muslim worship services.
Last Monday, some 20 years later, William Fulwood, now known as Abdul Hakim Bashir, was back at Lorton. But this time he was there as a volunteer chaplain, helping the estimated 1,300 Lorton inmates who are Muslims to celebrate their faith's holy day of Idul Fitr.
Around the world 800 million Muslims were celebrating the end of the 30-day of Ramadan with prayers and special meals. It was no different at Lorton.
In Lorton's maximum security facility where the most serious offenders are held, inmates gathered in an open courtyard with their wives, girlfriends and children, surrounded by the prison's 45-foot red brick walls. They quietly mingled and talked at small tables, with minimal supervision by prison guards, waiting for their special Id meal, Lorton-style, of smothered chicken, bean pies, carrot cakes and steaks grilled on open pits.
"The food was prepared by brothers who are basically outstanding cooks," said one inmate.
It was significant, several said, that the Muslim sects at Lorton - the Moors, the World Community and the Sunnis - celebrated Id together this year for the first time. "It is pleasing to Allah," said Herbert Sijim Rashid, an inmate who is an "imam" or Muslim priest.
"It demonstrates the unity of Islam and shows that men growing up in this system can work out their difficulties," he said.
"We started out with 144 prisoners in maximum keeping the fast and ended up with 114. That's pretty good, we feel," said Rashid, who is also chief cook for prison Muslims, vegetarians and all those with special diets. During Ramadan, Muslims keep a rigorous fast that prohibits eating, drinking and sexual acts during daylight hours.
Most prisoners "think it's a challenge. It gives them an opportunity to apply their religion," said Taalib Din Umrani, a volunteer Muslim chaplin.
"It's actually easier for prisoners," than for most Americans, he explained "because in the Middle East the work force slows down during Ramadan, while here the American Moslems must fast and work at the same time. Working and fasting is extremely difficult," he said.
One Muslim inmate said with pride that over 100 prisoners at Lorton who were not Muslims voluntarily fasted this year. "We've never seen this before." Another inmate later said this was because meals are better prepared for Muslims prisoners during Ramadan and this fact is widely known among the general prison population of 2,100.
During Ramadan, Muslim prisoners eat an early meal before sunrise at 5:30 a.m. called "shahoor" and another meal after sunset called "fitr."
Imam Rashid took time out from his cooking chores early in the Id day to conduct a special prayer service for the Muslims in cellblock No. 5. Simultaneous services were held in the other cellblocks by various volunteer and inmate imams. "No. 5 is maximum's maximum," Rashid said. "It's the separate or solitary block and one of the most dangerous places here."
After being led by prison guards through a series of locked iron gates and up several flights of stairs. Rashid entered an 18-by-18-foot cell and greeted the 20 or so Muslim inmates who had gathered for the short Id prayer service called Al-Fatiha.
Gray prison blankets that served as prayer rugs for the occasion were placed on the floor and 13 inmates lined up, after taking off their shoes, in two rows behind Rashid.
The men, who appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, were dressed in their prison uniform of blue jeans and various types of shirts. Some wore koofi caps, a type of skull cap worn by Muslims.
After the service was over and the inmates had risen from their knees, Rashid left, turning as he opened the cell door. "You brothers will be getting your meals soon," he said.Rashid explained that the inmates in No. 5 were not allowed to eat with the rest of the prisoners.
According to Iman Makal Huda Ba'th, Muslim chaplain at Lorton, over 80 percent of the Muslim prisoners converted to the faith after they got to Lorton. "They have a need for strong affiliation. They had so much trouble in their past that the family ties have broken down for leadership, community and some sense of direction."
Milton Bullock, the psychologist assigned by the D.C. Corrections Department to the maximum security facility, says that the Muslim religion has worked for some prisoners where other efforts at rehabilitation have failed.
"I've known some of these guys for 11 years and another else has helped them. Of all the religious faiths, theirs is the strongest here," Bullock said.
"The Muslims talk to the prisoners, not at them," he said. Some of these came in barely able to read and write, but they come here and end up learning Arabic. Very few use it (the Muslim faith) as a sham, in my opinion."
"We still need prayer rooms," said Rashid looking around cellblock No. 5. "But the institution can't afford them. We used to have to say prayers (Muslims are required to pray five times daily) in the work room under the steps where the mops are kept.
"When the officials found out about it," Rashid continued, "they were embarassed."
"For most part, though, they have been very cooperative with us," said Umrani. "They have been very good about the special arrangements needed for Ramadan."
In addition to prayers and feasting, Muslims are required on Id to contribute to a special charity. "Muslims here," said Ba'th, "pay the equivalent of a meal per number of people in the family. If there are five people in an inmate's family, he would pay $10. Most prisoners make between $3-$10 a month. Even those who make $3 a month try to do what they can."
An official explained that no money was actually passed, instead credits were issued to the charity to be drawn against an account with the prison that each inmate establishes when he enters.
"It's a time of sacrifice," said Ba'th. "Id represents a day of thanksgiving and graditude that these sacrifices have been achieved."