Arlington officials recently replaced the leader of a nine-month-old Muslim worship program at the county jail, complaining that he preached a radical message of defiance that could have turned inmates against their guards.
Anthony Muhammad, 33, a minister of the Nation of Islam who conducted Saturday night worship services at the jail, took "more of a street approach in his teachings than what would be appropriate in a jail," said David Bogard, Arlington's director of jail administration.
The situation in Arlington illustrates the challenges faced in several Washington area jails as administrators try to meet the religious needs of prisoners who practice the Islamic faith.
The message preached by ministers from the Nation of Islam -- the most active Islamic group in the nation's jails -- is seen by some jail officials as possibly too radical. The officials are turning instead to other groups.
Virtually every local jail offers some form of Protestant and Catholic worship. Arlington, Montgomery and Prince William jails and facilities run by the D.C. Department of Corrections offer Islamic services as well, which together are attended by hundreds of inmates. Jails are legally required to allow inmates to practice their religions, but are not required to admit outsiders to conduct religious services, officials said.
Muslim leaders whose messages are considered appropriate are difficult to find, jail administrators say. Although Arlington officials had been unhappy with Muhammad for several months, the difficulty in finding a replacement for him caused them to continue his services, they said.
Prince George's Jail officials say they have been searching for months for a volunteer to reinstate Islamic services. Officials in Fairfax and Alexandria say they would consider offering Islamic programs if inmates want them, and if they could find a leader with what they consider an appropriate message.
Prince William County began, and then disbanded, an Islamic program a year ago because there was no one to run it, said Elton Glenn, chaplain at the county jail. Three weeks ago, the jail resumed the program, which officials say they monitor to be sure its content is not political.
Many area jail administrators acknowledge that they don't know much about Islam and its sects. Most are certain, however, about what they don't want.
"We're always afraid that we will get a radical group in here," said Nancy Morin, program coordinator for the Prince William jail.
Bogard said he and other jail officials worried that Muhammad's message might prompt inmates to defy their corrections officers, who he said were sometimes depicted as "white devils" or "black co-conspirators" during Nation of Islam services.
At a recent service, Muhammad referred to Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder as "Uncle" and talked of "a conspiracy of Jewish newspaper editors in the U.S."
At the same time, he delivered a message of self-improvement, admonishing inmates to live clean, drug-free lives.
"Read, improve your vocabulary, improve your penmanship," he told the dozen gathered in the law library of the jail, "because you know what they teach us isn't enough."
Muhammad denies that his message is subversive and said Arlington jail officials have made his mission difficult by discouraging inmates from attending his services.
Abdul Alim Muhammad, spokesman for the Washington chapter of the Nation of Islam, said his organization has a decades-long history of involvement in jails and prisons across the country and disputed the fears of some jail administrators that the organization's message can be disruptive.
"We encourage inmates to obey authority, to become model prisoners. We actually increase the tranquillity of the prison situation," he said.
James Bragg, administrator of the central facility of the D.C. Department of Corrections, agreed that he has "probably had less of a problem with Islamic inmates" of all sects.
"They tend to be more disciplined and very respectful in dealing with the staff," Bragg said.
Anthony Richardson, 40, until recently an inmate in Arlington, said he has been involved with the Nation of Islam for the last six years, having been introduced to it while he was jailed at Lorton earlier.
"Through the Nation of Islam, you can find some self-esteem and self-worth in being a black man," he said.
Although Richardson said he did not agree with many of Muhammad's teachings, the services provided him with a rare opportunity to mingle freely with other Muslims.
Bogard said future Saturday evening Islamic services in Arlington will be led by Akmal Muwallif, a former member of the Nation of Islam who broke with the group 13 years ago.
Muwallif said he practices an ecumenical form of Islam that concentrates on the Koran.
Although the Nation of Islam is the oldest Islamic group operating in correctional facilities run by the District of Columbia, there are now more inmates involved in the Moorish Science and Sunni Muslim sects, Bragg said.
Bragg said that sectarian disputes among Muslim inmates frequently erupt in the jail.
In the Arlington jail, not everyone plans to accept a new Muslim leader quietly.
Steven Fearwell, 40, an inmate who has been a regular participant in Muhammad's class, said some inmates in Arlington are circulating a petition to fight the change.
"The inmates want Anthony Muhammad to continue leading the service," Fearwell said. "The jail administration is trying to exert control over what's taught here without due regard for the wishes of the inmates in the program."