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Hearings focus on Islamic radicalization among prison inmates

Islamic radicalization in prisons continues to be a concern among law enforcement officials across the U.S., and countering it should not be a partisan issue, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security said Wednesday.
Image: Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King
Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-NY) presides over a second hearing on the threat of Islamic radicalization in the House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. The hearings, focusing on prison populations, were less emotional than the first round held in March, but still stirred anxieties about profiling along racial and religions lines. Mark Wilson / Getty Images
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Islamic radicalization in prisons continues to be a concern among law enforcement officials across the U.S., and countering it should not be a partisan issue, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security said Wednesday.

Rep. Peter King led the second in what he has promised to be a series of hearings on violent Islamic radicalization in the U.S. The first hearing, held in March, broadly looked at Islamic radicalization around the country and what the Muslim community is doing to combat it. That hearing drew days of protests and criticism from Democrats who said that King and the Republicans were unfairly singling out Islam.

"I would urge my Democratic colleagues to rise above partisan talking points," King said during his opening remarks.

But the top Democrat on the committee, Bennie Thompson, said there are few instances of Islamic radicalization in prisons, the subject of Wednesday's hearing. Thompson said the vetting process of incoming mail and prison chaplains ensures that Islam — the fastest growing religion among prisoners in the U.S. — does not inspire violence.

The majority of the recent terror plots against the U.S. have involved people espousing a radical and violent view of Islam, making it difficult to ignore the role religion plays in this particular threat. But critics say focusing too closely on Islam and the religious motives of those who have attempted terror attacks threatens to alienate an entire community.

To King, the purpose of these hearings is clear: "It's to show and remind people that the threat is here." Law enforcement officials from New York and California who have handled cases of prison radicalization are slated to testify Wednesday.

Combating "Prislam" Testimony that supported King's view of the threat came from Michael Downing, commanding officer of Counter terrorism and Special operation at the Los Angeles Police Department.

He warned of what he called "Prislam" — a "hijacked cut-and-paste version of Islam" that is spread by inmates who have little understanding of standard Islam.

One of his recommendations to combat this perverted and sometimes violent form of the faith was to increase the number of imams visiting the prison. The number of chaplains and imams has declined due to budget cuts in recent years, he said.

But Professor Bert Useem, a professor of criminology and head of sociology at Purdue University, said his research suggested that prisons do not provide especially fertile ground for radical Islamic extremists.

He notes that prisons are far more orderly than they were a decade ago, when prison riots were commonplace, says Useem. Murder rates in prison are down 90 percent, and other crime tends to follow suit. The conditions are cause for grumbling among inmates, he says, though rarely for radicalism.

"The prisoners may complain about bad food or boredom, but the conditions are not seen as chaotic or illegitimate," he said. In addition, in these conditions, "it's easier for correctional officers to identify aberration when it exists."

"There are instances of prisoner radicalization with potentially grave consequences," Useem said.

One of the cases the hearings focused on was that of Kevin James, who formed his own brand of Islam while serving time at New Folsom State Prison in California, and directed recruits on the outside attack targets including U.S. military recruitment--in a plot that was thwarted.

But Useem said James was also an extremely unusual example among prison inmates.

"This is a very high IQ person... who writes this document which is over 100 pages in length. He teaches himself Arabic," said Useem.

"There’s no question that this is a clear case of Islamic radicalization in prison," Useem said. "But it's the outlier and hard to know exactly what to make of that case."

Fewer fireworks
King tried to dampen the controversy that flared around the first hearings, held in March. In those emotional proceedings, one witness, Rep. Keith Ellison (D.-Minn.) broke down in tears at the perceived targeting of Muslim Americans.

King said he can't blame people in the Muslim community for a person adopting a violent interpretation of their religion. But, he said, he can place blame if someone in the community knows of such a radical — for example, a prison chaplain who preaches a violent brand of Islam to impressionable inmates — and fails to point that person out to law enforcement or community leaders.

The White House, which pushed a message of religious tolerance ahead of King's initial hearing on Islamic radicalization, had no comment this time around.

For years, law enforcement officials have said the prison atmosphere is ripe for recruitment for any extremist cause, from violent Islamist extremism to white supremacist and Latino gangs.

Adopting the Islamic faith while in prison is not a new phenomenon. Islam took hold in U.S. prisons in the 1940s, when members of the Nation of Islam were held for refusing to fight in World War II. Malcolm X was one of their most famous prison recruits.

Many chaplains and corrections officials credit the faith, when taught properly, with being a stabilizing force that can help inmates turn their lives around.