Jailhouse Conversion Takes 'Extreme' Turn

The jailhouse conversion story has long been a part of prison culture. But there's now a movement converting inmates to religious and political extremists, embracing violent ideologies such as white supremacy, or so called "prison Islam." Mark Hamm, a professor of criminology at Indiana State University, talks about his research of so-called radicalized prisoners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, as we head out to Las Vegas later this week, we visit with one of Las Vegas' pioneering African-Americans, a former showgirl turned civic activist. But first, we're going to continue our series on criminal justice. We've been looking at research presented at the National Institute of Justice Convention held in Washington recently.

Today, how religious and political extremists gain followers behind bars. Now we've all heard the jailhouse conversion story. There's the cynical version -prisoners using religion as a way to game the system. There's a sincere one -the genuine transformation takes place. But now there's a third story, if you will: conversion through violent ideologies like white supremacy or so-called prison Islam.

How is someone converted to these beliefs in the first place? Is this a legitimate concern for the authorities and the public? Here to discuss this is Mark Hamm. He's a professor of criminology at Indiana State University. He's conducted extensive interviews with so-called radicalized prisoners. And he joins us from Bloomington, Indiana. Welcome to the program. Thanks for speaking with us.

Professor MARK HAMM (Criminology, Indiana State University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How does this happen? I mean, how are most prisoners - how did they come to be acquainted with these violent groups to begin with? I mean, is it that people were sort of previously connected with a gang, and that there was some sort of sympathy for it? Or do some people - this conversion happened solely in prison?

Prof. HAMM: Well, almost every one of those scenarios you laid out there can come into play, but beneath all of these conversions tend to be a friendship or a kinship network - the inmate will come in to a prison and may be pressed into a gang because of his ethnicity or his prior experience with a gang on the street. Or they can simply meet somebody on the yard, and independent of that gang structure, adopt a religion.

MARTIN: When we talk about extremist religious groups, what exactly are we talking about?

Prof. HAMM: Well, you've got - you can sort of separate them into prison Islam groups. These are groups that sort of use cut-and-paste versions of the Koran, and with the gang ideology and a criminal sensibilities. Then you got a string of white supremacy-oriented faith groups - everything from the Church of the Creator to Christian Identity and more and more of the pagan religions of Odinism, it's Icelandic counterpart Asatru, Wicca.

White supremacists are, you know, going into these sorts of pagan-oriented groups, people who worry about the security of institutions and what groups pose security threats. These are the ones that there are on the radar.

MARTIN: So actually, some of these white supremacist groups - this is white supremacists. So what does the religious aspect have to do with it?

Prof. HAMM: There's a lot of myth to that statement, a lot of stereotype to that sort of statement. When you get - sit down and talk to these men, whether they're, you know, a white supremacist gang or they're independents - and, you know, they've embraced the tenets of Odinism or Wicca, they tend to have a deep spirituality, and this has worked in their lives like religion has worked in many people's lives.

It calmed them down, given them, you know, greater ability to cope with the pains of imprisonment, to cope with stress. And, mainly, it's an alternative to predatory violence and wheeling and dealing and all the things you need to do to survive in prison.

MARTIN: Where does the theology come from?

Prof. HAMM: It's very interesting when you talk to men who embrace these religions. Prisoners have lots of time on their hands. Almost to a man, the people I interviewed just absolutely hate television. They looked at it as mind-control.

And so they read, they talk to one another, they meet in small groups and they pass on a folk knowledge of these religions that they've picked up through talking to other men. And, you know, you sort of develop it's own theological base that way, through these social networks.

MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. And talk to me about so-called prison Islam. And what are we talking about here? I think it's - I think a lot of people are of the view that Islam is probably the fastest growing religion within the prison system. Is that correct?

Prof. HAMM: Oh, it is. According to the studies that have been done, it's the fastest growing religion in American correctional institutions and prisons in Europe. You look at France, for example, there'd been estimates as many as high as 80 percent of the prisoners in French institutions are either converts or were already Muslims when they were locked up. And that's compared to 8 percent of the general population. No, it's not that high in the United States.

MARTIN: And what is the concern, Professor Hamm? I mean, the fact is in America, prisoners are allowed to believe what they want to believe. Correct? I mean, they have First Amendment rights to practice a religion just like other Americans do. Correct? So is the issue that religion is being used as a cover for criminal activity? Is the concern that religion is being used to promote violent or terroristic ideologies which might then be acted upon when persons get out of prison? What is the concern?

Prof. HAMM: Well, that is the concern, is that prisoners may embrace a radical ideology, and that ideology may have at its foundation some religious orientation. You know, a group - it may have both an affiliation with a political group and may have an affiliation with a religious group. And so it's a combination of religion sand politics that give a pause for concern.

And this is by no means a post-9/11 phenomenon. There'd been cases dating back to the '70s in which individuals have converted to these non-Judeo-Christian religions in prison and then upon their parole have joined terrorist groups and have gone on to engage in terrorist activity. Case after case - some very famous cases such as The Order and Aryan Republican Army here in the United States had members who had converted to white supremacy-oriented religions while in prison.

Since 9/11, we've got other very famous cases - the Richard Reid case. He'd converted to Islam while on a British youth detention center. Mukhtar Ibrahim, the ringleader of the follow-on attacks of the 7/7 London and bombings also converted in a British youth detention center.

There is something to be concerned about regarding the religious lives of prisoners.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE form NPR News. And we're talking with Mark Hamm, professor of criminology at Indiana State University about religious radicalization in prison.

What is the appropriate role of the authorities in this? You can't control what people believe…

Prof. HAMM: The authorities…

MARTIN: I mean, however offensive those beliefs might be…

Prof. HAMM: Sure.

MARTIN: …to the rest of us.

Prof. HAMM: I mean…

MARTIN: So what, yeah, what do you do?

Prof. HAMM: …authorities have their hands full, no doubt. I mean, authorities are primarily concerned with security of their institutions. And they've got gangs to deal with. They've got criminal rackets to deal with. And now they've got this threat of terrorist recruitment.

MARTIN: Do you have recommendations for how authorities should address these questions? And before I ask you that, I wanted to ask you another thing. I think that it is a, this may be one of those misconceptions from the outside. But I think that many people from the outside believe that prison authorities sometimes encourage or tolerate a certain level of gang activity, because it's, in essence, the prisoners policing themselves, that they're - they sort of allow this kind of racial balkanizing in prison just because they figure, well, you know, these groups then police themselves and create less headaches for the authorities. Is that stereotype or that perception based on truth in any way?

Prof. HAMM: I think it is. I mean, prisoners, for their own protection, need to gang together, need to group together, particularly maximum-security prisons -overcrowded maximum-security prisons. If you ask me about a recommendation, it's to look at overcrowding. You know, some of the most serious cases that we've seen have come out of overcrowded maximum-security institutions. I mean, it's just massive, a situation where you've got men living in hallways and in gymnasiums, auditoriums.

Then something like 40 percent of the men Hep C, and there's no rehabilitation. There's just nothing for them to do. And, you know, it's a very bleak situation. And prison's already a bleak situation. We made it even bleaker with this overcrowding. So until that's tackled, you won't deal with a gang problem, and you will not deal with the rise in extremism that is inevitable to come out of these institutions.

MARTIN: Number one, it's reducing overcrowding, but could it also be that if people are concerned about persons within prison preaching these cut and paste versions of traditional religions, that perhaps people who practice those religions ought to step up to the plate and offer instruction or spiritual leadership to persons in prison, maybe - and offering them a truer version of the religion. I mean, is that part of the answer?

Prof. HAMM: Well, that's a very structural answer. And that's sort of not the way that life really happens inside prisons. Prisons, you know, happen in terms of informal social networks that happened on prison yards, and they occur in prison cell blocks, chow halls, weightlifting pods, you know, where gangs meet. The - so you - there's no way you can control those informal forms of communication. This is what prisoners do. They talk to one another. And there's no way you can control what one person says to another person, particularly when you've got massive overcrowding.

And so the focus is, therefore, on what happens in those cellblocks and how overpopulated are they, what are the options that men have to the alternatives to joining extremist groups. I mean, can they learn a trade? Do they have counseling? Do they have education? You know, all of these traditional forms of prison rehabilitation programs, when you decrease them, then you increase the likelihood of gang affiliation and extremist affiliation.

MARTIN: Mark Hamm is a professor of criminology at Indiana State University. He joined us from Bloomington, Indiana. Professor Hamm, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. HAMM: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Now we'd like to hear from you. Do you have an experience with this you'd like to tell us more about? Have you ever been attracted to an ideology or religion most people consider extremist? If so, why? And what made you walk away? Please visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore to tell us more. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that number is 202-842-3522. We'd like to hear from you.

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