Yearning to Learn Islam

Muslims Behind Bars Feel Abandoned

By Emily M. Duncan

May/Jun 2024

“Not having access to scholars and Islamic materials is, to me, the most difficult thing,” said Dennis, who is incarcerated in Florida. “Many times I’ve needed to know what scholars have said about a particular thing, and I couldn’t find it in any of the books I had.”

The estimated 350,000 imprisoned Muslims in the U.S. face many difficulties, among them that prison libraries contain far fewer copies of the Quran than the Bible, contain very limited other educational materials and that despite laws banning religious discrimination in prison, the discrepancy in access to religious materials remains very real. 

Incarcerated individuals who are reverting or re-dedicating themselves to Islam face hurdle after hurdle. These include a distinct dearth of religious guidance from Muslim community members on the outside and the unwillingness of prison administrators to fix existing problems. Thus our fellow Muslims are left out in the cold, hungry for information and guidance. 

In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) , which requires jails and prisons to provide reasonable religious accommodations for inmates. It also prohibits institutions from placing a “substantial burden” on inmate religious practices.

Religious Discrimination

Yet, Muslim inmates continue to file many lawsuits on the grounds that their religious needs are being ignored. They cite a lack of accommodation for fasting, unjust prices of religious materials (e.g., prayer rugs) and the lack of halal food. A chief complaint is the lack of access to educational materials, including such essentials as the Quran. 

“It is important to the incarcerated Muslim to have a connection with the broader community, to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. It is hard in prison for Muslims,” said Jason H from Colorado. “We would greatly appreciate volunteers to come and speak with us, give a khutba, share with us what is going on in the community. We could use Islamic materials. All our libraries are supplied by the inmates’ personal donations. The state does not provide a budget to purchase any additional materials. It would be nice to have a familiarity with some brothers, so that when we get released, we can feel like we are coming into a welcomed environment and brotherhood.”

There are very few, if any, Qurans available for use at any given prison library. There certainly aren’t enough to serve the entire Muslim population. Incarcerated Muslim communities rely on donations from the public to build their religious libraries. 

“It’s one of the top asks from our students, and many say that they make a point of donating their own materials to their chaplain once they’ve completed coursework to help build the library for future inmates,” said Nabil Afifi (co-founder and development director, Tayba Foundation), who has worked with the incarcerated for more than 15 years. 

Tayba Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to serving individuals and families impacted by incarceration, believes in the power of human change through holistic education, guidance and support. Their work is organized into three interrelated program areas: education, life skills, and re-entry.

Markup for Being Muslim

A Pennsylvania Post review of county jails from 2020 found that certain jails give Bibles away for free, while charging for Qurans. Bibles were typically available for $8, whereas copies of the Quran were closer to $20. A prayer rug was $23 and a kufi cap $12. These prices are much higher than what these same items cost on the outside. 

Both Christian and Muslim leaders have spoken out about the unjust prices for religious materials in prison. Prison wages are infamously low, with rates typically starting at pennies per hour. Some inmates get around just $20 a month. A Quran isn’t the only purchase an inmate would like to make. In addition, many necessities are only offered as commissary items, such as soap, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products — not to mention phone and video calls to family. 

This makes it incredibly difficult for an inmate to afford a $20 Quran. But obtaining it is only half the battle; the other half is keeping it safe, for it could still be seized during a routine search or destroyed by fellow inmates. 

“I’ve struggled with discrimination, retaliation and ignorance on all levels coming from administrations, correctional officers and inmates,” said Joe in Connecticut. “They must have acted out of either bigotry and/or Islamophobia, disrespecting our Qurans and other Islamic texts by throwing them on the floor, tearing them and/or stepping on them during cell inspections (shakedowns).”

Being Muslim Without Guidance

There are fewer Muslims active in prisons than other religions, despite Muslims being overrepresented among the prison population. 

“Christians in prison have literally hundreds of programs and correspondence courses. They have spiritual advisors or people from the community that volunteer to come and visit them and assist them in religious ways,” said Ali from Connecticut. “Being Muslim in here, we feel abandoned and not connected to the community. It almost feels like the community is embarrassed by us. Christians and Jews have support networks. Tayba is the closest I have seen to what they have.”

Ali believes the prison authorities were — and are — antagonistic toward Islam. He feels Muslims are seen as being against the administration and as a radical group. 

“Most people fear us or hate us. We used to be open targets. That has changed. But not much. Gangs used to see us as a threat to the negativity that they stand for. At times we are usually a source of balance in keeping peace,” he said. “We continue to get harassed with receiving Islamic books and literature. All Islamic materials must be reviewed by the security administration. They even tried to deny us Sahih al-Bukhari at one time.”

While Islam ranks as the second largest faith in federal prisons, Muslims don’t have nearly enough chaplains to guide them. 

In March 2020, a study showed that 84% of chaplains were Protestants, even though Protestants only make up 34% of the inmate population. Meanwhile, just 13 Muslim chaplains are working at federal prisons to provide guidance to over 11,000 Muslim inmates. Without enough chaplains, the Friday prayer is routinely canceled, hindering Muslims from practicing their faith or gathering together at all. In addition to performing their traditional functions, Muslim chaplains can advocate for resources more effectively. 

Why the Disconnect?

These statistics are the result of several realities. Prisons are often located in rural settings, while many of the larger Muslim communities are based in cities and traveling to faraway prisons requires resources. Many incarcerated Muslims are Black or Latino, while many of the major mosques are run primarily by immigrant Muslims. The result, however unintentional, is a disconnect. Many of the communities that might have enough to help may not know how to do so. 

To make matters worse, the Bureau of Prisons’ requirements to apply to be a chaplain add an extra layer of difficulty for potential Muslim chaplains. They must be between 21 and 37 years old at the time of their initial appointment and have a graduate level degree in theology — a significant barrier for those who cannot afford higher education. The bureau also requires chaplains to be ordained, even though many faiths, including Islam, don’t ordain clergy. To get around this, religious leaders must provide adequate documentation of the applicant’s functioning in ministerial leadership roles. These requirements significantly limit the pool of applicants and exclude many community members who would be wonderful chaplains.

The result is incarcerated Muslims who feel forgotten and have few resources to learn and grow in their religion. While a few institutions have robust Muslim communities with knowledgeable leaders, many smaller communities don’t even have someone who can read Arabic. Often, Tayba students end up becoming prison imams and leading their community, as they’re the only ones with access to any knowledge about Islam.

Many of our female students have reported being completely without guidance, support or options.

“Services are not offered here. The chaplain says she can’t find anyone willing to come to the women’s site,” said Laura in Tennessee. “Volunteers go to the men’s side only.”

“We have jummah and ta‘leem (learning circles), but no consistent imam to be here on a consistent basis,” said Tameka from Florida. “We are met with many roadblocks and are disrespected during Ramadan.”

“I have been targeted and mistreated for who I am and what I believe in. Not only do I suffer what has become the norm of systematic racism, being a black male coming through these penal institutions, but being Muslim means a double dose of discrimination,” said Leon in Illinois. “They don’t recognize our holidays or provide us with proper feasting, as they do with all other religions. Nor will they allow speakers to come and speak to us or represent us as they do all other religions. Everything is labeled a security issue.”

How to Help

As a result, countless Muslims behind bars are desperate to learn more about their faith and getting to know their brothers and sisters in the faith. Getting access to knowledge, guidance and community will make them productive members of our communities and strengthen their iman from behind bars and upon their release.

It’s not a hopeless situation. We can help if we work together by donating Qurans, Islamic literature and our time. 

“It is our duty as their brothers and sisters to help them learn their deen and support them,” said Afifi. “At Tayba, we provide guidance to this deeply underserved population. We offer courses in Islam, having created materials tailored specifically to the prison population. We also provide personal support on re-entry, reducing recidivism by helping the formerly incarcerated to set up their lives as Muslims and ultimately become the upstanding community members they want to be.”

Emily M. Duncan is a New York-based, Canadian-born freelance writer with an undergraduate degree in theater. She is passionate about language learning, social justice, and family recipes. She has worked with Tayba Foundation since 2020. Find out more about their programs and courses at

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