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Muslims Are Over-Represented In State Prisons, Report Says


A report released today by a Muslim civil rights organization finds that Muslims are overrepresented in state prisons. They're about 1% of the U.S. population, but based on data from 34 states and Washington, D.C., they make up about 9% of the state prison population. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The report from the organization Muslim Advocates is the most comprehensive data on the Muslim population in state prisons. Those institutions house about 1.3 million of the total U.S. prison population. Yusuf Saei is the author of the report.

YUSUF SAEI: Getting a picture of the religious preferences of state prisoners is really important and unique.

FADEL: Knowing that the number's about 9%, Saei says, helps prison officials understand the importance of respecting religious practice for a significant portion of people in prison. The report also sheds light on the obstacles some incarcerated people face in practicing their faith. It compiled 163 federal cases between October 2017 and January 2019 in which Muslims alleged their right to practice was being violated.

SAEI: Another important finding is that incarcerated Muslims are asking for very basic things - religiously compliant food, books, prayer mats - but they're not receiving them in many states.

FADEL: Saei says state policies are inconsistent for Muslims - some very accommodating, others not. Martin Horn teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. He says for the most part, state prisons respect federal law that protects religious practice for prisoners.

MARTIN HORN: Things that I want to do or congregate activities that I might want to engage in with other prisoners, if they're done in the name of religion, have a higher degree of protection than those same activities - such as gathering together or studying together - would have if they're not done in the name of religion.

FADEL: Horn says the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 states the government can't impede a prisoner's free exercise of religion without having a really good reason.

HORN: The state has a very high burden to overcome to avoid allowing them to practice their faith at all. And that means not allowing them prayer books, not allowing them to gather for prayer.

FADEL: But Muslim prison chaplains say the current political climate affects Muslim prisoners. And that's problematic for people with so little control over their lives. Imam Tariq Aquil, the chaplain credited with developing the halal meal program in California state prisons, says he saw that play out before he retired in 2017, like when a Muslim prisoner's prayer time coincided with the inmate count.

TARIQ AQUIL: And the guard sees that he's literally praying. And he sees that he's actually in his cell, so he can literally count him right there. I can see you. You're praying, so I know you haven't escaped or anything. But they would stop. They would yell at him. They would curse him.

FADEL: Because he was praying rather than responding to the roll call. Also, Aquil says, it's important to note that overrepresentation of Muslims in prison isn't indicative of a lot of Muslims being arrested and convicted.

AQUIL: About 90% of incarcerated Muslims in the United States become Muslims during their incarceration.

FADEL: A lot of prisoners, specifically African Americans, become Muslim, Aquil says, in their search for a new way of life that won't land them back behind bars.

Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.