A dozen inmates in maximum security at Lorton Reformatory kenlt on squares of white cloth with their eyes closed and heads bowed, and chanted a prayer in Arabic. Leading the group was a trim, bearded young man, who wore a black skull cap.
The occasion was regular Friday Jumah services, the equivalent in the Islamic faith of the Sabbath for Christians and Jews.
The prayer leader was Imam (minister or spiritual leader) Mikal Huda Ba'th (pronounced baa eeth), the Islamic chaplain for the D.C. Department of Corrections and the first Islamic chaplain to be hired by any penal system in the country.
Before Ba'th took the $22,000-a-year post last December, the religious needs of Muslim inmates were attended to by Catholic or Protestant chaplains, who some inmates felt lacked the time and proper training to work with Islamic believers.
Delbert Jackson, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections, said he has felt for many years that an Islamic chaplain was needed to deal with the growing number of Muslims in the city's correctional facilities.
"For a long time we had a proclivity to believe that the majority of the people in our institutions were either Protestants or Catholics," Jackson said. "That is simply not the case. We estimate that between 45 percent and 50 percent of our inmate population of 6,656 -- including those on parole --are members of the Islamic faith."
In addition to being a chaplain, Ba'th, 31, is also the resident imam of Richmond, Va., and is the mideastern regional coordinator of prison services for the World Community of Islam in the West, formerly known as the Nation of Islam or "Black Muslims."
Ba'th sees his job as one that finally "legitimatizes" the Islamic faith as an accepted religion and provides inmates a figure in authority to whom they can come and make appeals.
"In the past, Muslim inmates worked at the mercy of other people who weren't obligated to follow the teachings of the Islamic faith," said Ba'th. "An Islamic chaplain is obligated to see to it that Islamic functions are brought about and maintained in all of the facilities. A chaplain under a different faith is not under that obligation."
Although other chaplains employed by the D.C. Department of Correction are assigned to duties at a specific facility, Ba'th serves as the only chaplain for Muslims in all seven of the city's detention facilities.
Ba'th said the result is a crushing work load that demands a 13-hour work day and requires him to drive about 450 miles a week, as he makes his rounds between institutions in Northeast Washington and Lorton, Va.
He is responsible for coordinating services and other Islamic activities at the seven facilities, for hearing inmate complaintsreaching from the Koran, and checking to insure that meals given to inmates are prepared according to Islamic laws.
At Lorton on Friday, Ba'th sat down with inmates before he began Jumah services to drink coffee and eat a slice of bean pie, considered a delicacy among many Muslims. The food was prepared under the supervision of Imam Herbert Sijjin Rasheed (Herbert Stevens), who must see to it that only natural ingredients are used and that pork in any form is excluded.
When time came for the services, inmates donned skull caps, took off their shoes and spread clean, white clothes on the dining hall floor where they sat as Ba'th taught from the Koran.
"We're not a people who are always aggressive," Ba'th told the group as he stood behind a podium. "When we work with people in positions of authority, we must respect their authority. That's what the Koran is trying to teach us.
"I've noticed that sometimes some of you treat officers as though they are not human. In turn, they treat you as though you're not human," he said. "Allah does not want us to do this," Ba'th told the men dressed in blue denim prison uniforms.
Earlier in the day, at the new city jail, Ba'th was busily investigating the complaint of another Muslim, who Ba'th said was arrested last week and kept in jail because he could not pay the $100 bail.
Ba'th said serious problems for the man apparently began when a guard heard him chanting Islamic prayers in his cell and a misunderstanding occurred.
"Apparently the guard asked the man to stop praying and the man told him it was his religious privilege' to pray." Ba'th said. "When the guard attempted to arrest the man, he rebelled and was put into a padded cell. Finally they chained him to his bed."
Ba'th, who said the matter still was unresolved by the end of the day Friday, cited it as a good example of the kinds of problems he is called on to solve daily.
A native of Columbus, Ohio, Ba'th has lived in pursuit of widely differing ideals, ranging from his plans at one time to study medicine to his work in prisons during the late 1960s as an official of the Black Panther Party in New Haven, Conn.
Ba'th said he has an older brother who is a Baptist minister in Pittsburgh and a younger brother who is studying for the Catholic priesthood near Chicago.
Ba'th said he earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Ohio State University, an associate degree in business administration from Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and a law degree from the LaSalle University extension in Chicago. He said he currently is completing work on a doctorate degree in Islamic jurisprudence from the University of London.
In the early 1970s, when various black power organizations -- including the Black Panthers -- were slowly disintegrating. Ba'th said he was attracted to the then Nation of Islam.
"The Muslims were still well organized and had not lost their commitment to protect our community and our families," Ba'th said.
Ba'th said that although his initial attraction to the Islamic faith was more social and political than spiritual he is now a strict adherent to the teachings of the Koran.
And like himself, Ba'th said that many of the inmates who join the "Islamic brotherhood" do so for reasons other than because they are Godconscious.
"When a new inmate comes into a correctional facility his first concern is about his own protection from assaults and sexual abuse, not about religion or a new relationship with God," Ba'th said.
"It doesn't take long for a new inmate to see that Muslims are well behaved, they stick together. If you fight one Muslim, you have to fight them all," he said. "So consequently, long before many brothers are committed to the faith, they are committed to the Islamic principles of unity."
Jackson said that although his current budget does not allow for additional Islamic chaplains, he already is reviewing such a request.
"These (Muslim) inmates are well adjusted psychologically. They mind their own business and they do what they are told," Jackson said.
"It's true that many of them come into the Islamic faith to be under the umbrella of brotherhood for protection, but after a while you see that some are going through a real spiritual experience," Jackson added.