I recently read an article about British prisoners who converted to Islam in order to receive protection from powerful Muslim gangs within the prison system. This reminded me of a panel that I attended at my college last year about the role that religion plays in prisons. The panelists—a priest, a pastor, and an imam who worked in the local prison system—explained that prisoners sometimes had opportunistic motives behind conversion. Prisoners of a specific faith are given certain privileges on their religious holidays, for example, and some prisoners converted from religion to religion in order to receive these perks (although the prison system, attempting to stymie this behavior, has changed its rules so that prisoners can now convert only once every two years). However, the panelists also pointed out that other prisoners have, throughout their incarceration, been brought new awareness of religion. They spoke of the discipline and sense of human dignity that religion gave to incarcerated persons. Malcolm X, for example, famously converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison, saying that “In the hectic pace of the world today, there is no time for meditation, or for deep thought. A prisoner has time that he can put to good use…If he’s motivated, in prison he can change his life” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Alex Haley).
Prisoners are, in theory, entitled to the same religious protections that any other United States citizen is entitled to. At a recent Interfaith Alliance event, Rabbi Israel Drazin pointed out that in prison, unlike in the military, compelling state interest is the only reason for prohibiting an individual’s religious practices. However, there are often restrictions placed upon prisoners’ ability to worship for security reasons. Sometimes prisoners are proselytized to, or pressured into conversion in order to receive superior counseling or vocational services. And now some British prisoners convert to Islam out of fear, or because of intimidation.
Policymakers, as well as those in charge of individual prison facilities, should work to ensure that prisoners’ religious liberty is not violated. Prisoners have very few freedoms; their freedom of religion is one that should remain intact.