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By Ira Rifkin
c. 1996 Religion News Service
    STORMVILLE, N.Y. (RNS, January 23, 1996) - The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, said Imam Hasib Abdul-Haqq, the Muslim chaplain at Green Haven Correctional Facility here, is a time for patience, a time to develop the discipline that enables a person to accept his destiny.
    For Amir Ali Brathwaite, one of nearly 200 men who listened as Abdul-Haqq delivered his sermon during a recent prison prayer service, the message held a poignancy that only some in his situation can fully appreciate.
    Brathwaite has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in a bank robbery in which one person was murdered. At age 25, he has already spent seven years behind bars, the last four at Green Haven, a maximum-security state prison for men set on a slight rise in the wooded countryside about a 90-minute drive north of New York City.
    Only his faith in Islam, Brathwaite said, enables him to face the prospect of endless days in prison. "If Allah ever feels I'm ready to get out of here, then I will," he said. "Until then, I can only practice Islam and wait."
    Jailhouse conversions are nothing new. But in American prisons today, a declaration of faith - as in Brathwaite's case - often means conversion to Islam.
    Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the 1.5 million inmates in federal, state and municipal prisons and jails today identify themselves as Muslims, according to Iman Warithuddin Umar, president of the National Association of Muslim Chaplains. In New York City jails, the figure is closer to 30 per cent.
    As a result, the nation's prisons have become a key element in the rapid growth of Islam in America, particularly among African-Americans, who account for almost half of the nation's three million to five million Muslims.
    Like Brathwaite, the overwhelming majority of the inmate converts are African-American men, who comprise more than half the nation's prison population. Some 30,000 black men convert to Islam in prison each year.
"So many of the African-Americans you see today who are Muslims were the prison converts of the last 20 years," said Fareed Nu'man a researcher for the American Muslim Council. "Ever since the days of Malcom X, prisons have been an important source of recruitment. Today we're seeing the cumulative effect."
    Sulayman Nyang, a professor of African Studies at Howard University in Washington, estimated that one of every ten African-American Muslims today came to the faith through a prison conversion.
"You cannot minimize the importance of this to the spread of Islam in the U.S.," he said.
(Source: Christian News 1/29/1996)