Making Time: Religion & Black Prison Organizing, an Interview with Hakim ‘Ali

Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it?

In this article, Religion and Incarceration co-founders Laura McTighe and Hakim ‘Ali speak about Islam and black prison organizing in 1970s Baltimore in anticipation of the NYU event, “Making Time: Discipline and Religion in America’s Prisons” on April 10, 2015. More information about this roundtable conversation can be found here.


Making Time: Religion & Black Prison Organizing, an Interview with Hakim ‘Ali

by Laura McTighe
The Revealer | March 27, 2015

hakim

Hakim Ali.

It is shortly after the Fajr morning prayers and snow is falling as big as fists. Hakim’s deep laughter punctuates the steady chug of the steam radiator in the corner, as he launches into another tale of a Philadelphia long since passed. I smile in knowing recognition. Hakim has an unparalleled gift for storytelling. We have been talking for almost an hour.

Colloquially, folks often speak about incarceration as “doing time.” What Hakim and I have been discussing is the idea of “making time.” Can we better understand the everyday work of building geographies of confinement, as well as the complex strategies for transforming our darkest of institutions, if we think about time as “made” rather than “done”? Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it? Hakim knows the world of prisons far better than most: he spent forty years of his life behind bars. “And it is only, ONLY by the grace of Allah that I am sitting here having this conversation with you,” Hakim reminds me, with a sudden somberness. “I am a Black Muslim man, 71 almost 72 years of age, and I understand fully what that means in this day and time, in this country, and in the world.”

Hakim and I met in Philadelphia more than a decade ago. Our connection was one of intention as much as coincidence: in 1978 – the year I was born – he had been transferred to the federal prison in Lewisburg, PA – the town I lived in as a teenager. Over the years, we have built a relationship of closeness and reciprocity, as beloved friends and comrades. Through our work together, I have come to know Hakim as a poet, an educator, a revolutionary, a father, and a confidant. He rarely talks about how he survived the hell of the local, state and federal prisons that held him captive, and I know better than to ask. Those silences in his life story have been built up because of too many small abuses to count, because of great and incomprehensible ones.

But this morning, under the guise of “making time,” with the snow showing no sign of relenting, Hakim began to speak about his conversion to Sunni Islam, his work with the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Baltimore bank robbery that catapulted him into the caverns of justice in America. The year was 1972. The date was February 23rd.

* * *

When we got popped, the Baltimore cops told us the folks in Philly were calling a citywide holiday. The “Philly 5” they called us in Baltimore. Of the five, three of us were Sunni Muslim and one of us was Nation of Islam. And the other one, because of his association with us, was sympathetic to Islam, even though he wasn’t Muslim. So Islam was our point of unity as we were doing what we were doing, existing before the trial, and even during the course of the trial in the way that we were referred to, you know.

A National Guardsman watches detainees in the Baltimore city jail on April 10, 1968, six days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Weyman Swagger/Baltimore Sun)

A National Guardsman watches detainees in the Baltimore city jail on April 10, 1968, six days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. (Weyman Swagger/Baltimore Sun)

So one day while we were in the city jail, we were in the yard – something had just happened, a dude had tried to escape earlier – and they had everybody out of the buildings and we were in the yard, with the police around us. I saw this brother walking down the yard, and he had this paper rolled up in his back pocket. And I saw different parts of words – something about Islam, and the some parts of the Arabic… So I approached him, and asked him, “You mind if I look at that?” and he said, “Man, you can have it.” And he gave me the paper. So I opened up the paper, I was reading it, and it was in fact a newsletter coming from this masjid in West Baltimore. It had an address and contact information, so I got together with the other brothers and showed them the paper and we decided to see if we could get some materials sent in for us to read.

Just to be clear: Sunni Islam was not in Maryland. Anything related to Islam was the Nation of Islam, or this little small group of dudes who were Five Percenters. At the start, we didn’t have intentions of establishing anything in the jail. We were just seeing if we could get some materials, something to read, or a contact. But eventually this effort on our part led to us establishing traditional, orthodox Sunni Islam in the Maryland system.

First, we started with the city jail, where we were awaiting trial. Eventually we got somebody to come out. The first visit was a personal visit – the Imam, Ali Akbar, came out and met with one of the people in our group. Then Ali came back again, and we created an opportunity for him to meet not only with ourselves but also with a couple of other brothers that we found out were there and were Sunni Muslim. They had been existing under the radar, you know what I mean? Because the Baltimore jail is transitional, and folks were focusing on their case.

So we got to the point – and I’m really, really, really summarizing this – that we were able to get this brother Ali from the masjid to come in and meet with the Superintendent of Baltimore city jail and we literally got jummah started there. It was the first time that the dude had heard about jummah, it was the first time that Muslims from the community had even entertained the thought of coming into the city jail. And from that, later on down the line, a position was created where Ali got appointed as the community Imam – the representative of Islam for the Baltimore jail.

That was sort of our first political/religious statement, with all the other stuff we were doing prior to coming to Baltimore and getting locked up. We believed that we were in the course of revolutionary action, taking from the government, supporting the people… It was the same sort of concept as what the Black Panther Party was doing, but we had not been building institutions. We mostly just focused on meeting the community’s immediate needs – helping folks with rent, paying their bills, getting food… So this was the first real thing that we literally did in an institution, and to this day what we started still exists.

So that was a real spiritual change for me….

Continue reading at The Revealer….


Laura McTighe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Through her dissertation project, “Born In Flames,” she is working with leading Black feminist organizations in Louisiana to explore how reckoning with the richness of southern Black women’s intellectual and organizing traditions will help us to understand (and do) American religious history differently. Laura comes to her doctoral studies through more than seventeen years of direct work to challenge the punitive climate of criminalization in the United States and support communities’ everyday practices of transformation. Currently, she serves on the boards of Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, Men & Women In Prison Ministries in Chicago and Reconstruction Inc. in Philadelphia. Laura’s writings have been published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Bridging Immigrant Justice and Anti-Prison Organizing in the United States (2012), the International Journal for Law and Psychiatry (2011), Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice (2009), and a variety of community publications.

Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Andrew Krinks explores the the secularized theo-logics that make possible the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and non-white communities in the U.S.!


Tracing the Theo-Logics of Criminalization

by Andrew Krinks

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety.” This article served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

From the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1, 1982 cover story by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson entitled, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” which served as a foundational theoretical contribution to what would become the institutionalization of a new wave of the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, and non-whiteness in the 80s, 90s, and today.

My project is catalyzed by the fact that the United States of America incarcerates poor communities and communities of color at rates wildly disproportionate to those of white and non-poor communities. From my perspective, incarceration is an inherently destructive solution to the harm that communities experience. Indeed, as my project seeks to demonstrate, while incarceration is purported to be a means of properly dealing with harm, it most often functions instead as a perpetrator of further harm in that it controls, contains, and disappears whole communities that are already the inheritors of centuries of dispossession and displacement.

The question that drives my project, then, is: What logics undergird the operation of systems of criminal justice in the U.S. that make the hyper-incarceration of non-white and poor communities not only possible but so deeply entrenched? With other scholars and activists whose work seeks to chip away at the prison-industrial complex, I deny the racist and classist position that reconciles the disproportionalities of American incarceration by concluding that black and poor communities must simply be predisposed to “criminal” behavior. Rather, I take the position that the racial and class-based disproportionalities of incarceration in the U.S. are indeed the result of a racism and classism that manifests in the form of a phenomenon known as “criminalization.”

The term “criminalization” here designates those processes whereby non-normative or marginal populations are constructed in the popular imagination as inherently prone to criminal behavior, which in turn justifies the disproportionate application of the law through policing and legislation, which, in turn, filters a disproportionate number of non-white and poor persons into the criminal justice system, thereby controlling, containing, and disappearing populations deemed a risk or threat to the good order of society. It is a vicious cycle, and one whose inner dynamics my project seeks to uncover.

But my project is not simply an exercise in sociological analysis or political theory, though such work is necessary and has bolstered my own in indispensible ways. Rather, my project seeks to follow the trail of the “theological” in the hyper-criminalization and incarceration of poor and black communities. Put another way, my project explores the ways in which the criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color and poor people in the U.S. constitutes a phenomenon whose rational structure and undergirding logics may be said to be, in significant part, theological.

It is often the assumption of historians of penal institutions that, unlike early American experiments with incarceration, contemporary prisons have become thoroughly secularized such that the function of prisons may no longer be described as bearing any religious or theological character. My project seeks to problematize this account by drawing out the secularized theo-logics that continue to undergird policing and prisons today.

In brief, my theological analysis investigates carceral theological anthropologies and soteriologies (doctrines of the human and salvation) that undergird the hyper criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities. I argue that moral virtuousness and normative personhood are articulated in and through the category and inhabitation of whiteness, as a transcendent, god-like subject position and mode of being spatialized in the form of property, such that blackness, which is marked by what I call “original criminality,” is always already trespassing in a nation that is essentially and constitutively white space. Likewise, by tracing the lineage of contemporary broken windows policing to earlier vagrancy laws, I demonstrate how the contemporary sin of poverty is bound up with the immorality of refusing participation in the capitalist economy, or in literally transgressing the boundaries of property upon which one’s presence can only ever be a contamination and blockage of the moral flow of capital.

Through theological and genealogical analysis of archival material, policy manuals guiding broken windows policing, property law, interviews on experiences of criminalization and incarceration, and popular rhetoric on race, poverty, and criminality, my project seeks to make legible the logics that undergird the contemporary hyper-criminalization and incarceration of black and poor communities as secularized theo-logics, all in order that new, liberative theological modalities might enter in to contribute to the dismantling of the racist, classist machinery of the prison-industrial complex.


Andrew Krinks is a doctoral student in Religion at Vanderbilt University

Haunted Passages: On Carrying the Past and Envisioning Justice

What do we do with our collective histories of violence?

In this photo-essay, Religion and Incarceration co-founder Laura McTighe descends into the bowels of Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison, and reflects on on how we remember, what we work to forget, and whether we are willing to be haunted by those histories that are not really past.


Haunted Passages: On Carrying the Past and Envisioning Justice

by Laura McTighe
The Revealer | February 24, 2015

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” -Nelson Mandela

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” -Nelson Mandela (Photo by Laura McTighe)

“That’s because you live in the United States of Amnesia!” my friend chided as we descended into the bowels of Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison. “Indeed,” I laughed in agreement. Back home, I was far more accustomed to the “it wasn’t that bad” approach to our nation’s past, as if whitewashing our collective histories of violence would make them go away. For more than a century, the “Moonlight and Magnolias” myth of life in the antebellum South has dominated our national consciousness. Only one plantation in the United States – Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation – tells the story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, and it only just opened on December 8, 2014 after a long, embittered struggle led by local Black residents. Entering Number Four, I was unable to contain my shock at how meticulously the curators of this prison-turned-museum had documented the perversions of apartheid justice perpetrated within the carceral complex.

Number Four is a relic of apartheid governance: even in their confinement, people classified as native, coloured and Asian had to be kept separate from whites. In its heyday, Number Four held some of the most notable leaders of the liberation struggle. But the vast majority of those confined were the hordes of Black people arrested every day under the Pass Laws that controlled their movement in and out of the townships to which they had been forcibly relocated. Today, the hallowed walls and recesses of Number Four are filled with the oral and written testimonies of former political prisoners, creating a painful, if imperfect, archive of life inside.

Ekhulukhuthu (the deep hole) isolation cells extended along the furthest-most wall of Number Four. Each concrete box is fixed in time, stripped of bedding with only a small beam of natural light filtering through the peep hole guards used to spy on those confined. Now, only one cell door remains bolted shut. When I turned to my friend for explanation, his finger was already outstretched: “That cell is haunted.” I nodded slowly, as my gaze refocused on the closed isolation cell door: “I think this whole place is haunted.”

(Photo by Laura McTighe)

(Photo by Laura McTighe)

* * *

Continue reading at The Revealer….


Laura McTighe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. Through her dissertation project, “Born In Flames,” she is working with leading Black feminist organizations in Louisiana to explore how reckoning with the richness of southern Black women’s intellectual and organizing traditions will help us to understand (and do) American religious history differently. Laura comes to her doctoral studies through more than seventeen years of direct work to challenge the punitive climate of criminalization in the United States and support communities’ everyday practices of transformation. Currently, she serves on the boards of Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, Men & Women In Prison Ministries in Chicago and Reconstruction Inc. in Philadelphia. Laura’s writings have been published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Bridging Immigrant Justice and Anti-Prison Organizing in the United States (2012), the International Journal for Law and Psychiatry (2011), Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice (2009), and a variety of community publications.

Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Mauricio Najarro on 12-Step Program spiritualities and our collaborative work of liberation and prison abolition!


Sustainable Activism, Prison Abolition, & the Spirituality of Recovery:
Christian Dispassion as the Affective Dimension of Liberation

by Mauricio Najarro

Photo by Skip Goodman, castrocountryclub.org

Photo by Skip Goodman, castrocountryclub.org

Confronting the problem of mass incarceration in the United States today requires not only commitment and investment, but also endurance, compassion, and humility. It is, however, very difficult to cultivate these virtues while honestly and courageously acknowledging the debilitating emotional reactions that accompany sustained contact with police brutality, radical socioeconomic inequality, and the disavowals and apathy that constitute the privilege of some achieved at the expense of others.

Theological reflection on liberation from enslavement to the emotional consequences of structural sin can provide orientation and inspiration leading to sustainable activism. Affective liberation, freedom for action and from affective attachment, has the ability to ground both conscientious educational initiatives inside prisons and spiritually nourishing activist movements beyond prison walls.

Working within prisons and towards prison abolition, while building communities and coalitions, demands a significant investment from individuals who are called not only to action but also to self-examination. Learning the truth of oppression often elicits a deep and debilitating rage. Anger, particularly in the form of self-righteous indignation, is a toxic fuel that poisons the communal atmosphere and corrodes the possibility of meaningful dialogue. Individuals both inside and outside prisons must transform their justified anger from self-righteous and corrosive indignation to orienting, productive, and enabling outrage. Outrage, unlike resentment, results in liberating praxis that recognizes the dangers of codependency in social justice work. Liberation in its broadest sense thus includes a struggle for justice within a freedom from affective attachment and codependent obsession.

Non-attachment, coupled with effective and vigorous action in the world, is the affective dimension of liberation that is deeply resonant with ethical and political dimensions of theological reflection originating in the work of Latin American liberation theologians and US Latino/a liberationist thinkers committed to critical thought and strategic interventions in the service of the brutalized and oppressed. Jesuit theologian Ignacio Ellacuría writes:

Liberation is a concept that represents the very essence of the revealed message and God’s salvific gift to humanity. That message and that gift may be viewed from other points of view, but if they are not viewed from the perspective of liberation, they remain substantially reduced and often mischaracterized.[1]

Drawing from the work of Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Angela Y. Davis, Ignacio Ellacuría, and R. Michael Wyatt, I present 12-Step Program spirituality as a model for the liberating praxis of sustainable Christian activism inside and outside prison walls. 12-Step Program spirituality, with “its somatic focus, its reservations about cognition, and its reliance on the mutually informing life of the group,”[2] offers unique and valuable insights into the daily discipline of freedom from active addiction and codependent obsession.

In my work, I recover Christian Patristic authors’ concept of dispassion (apatheia) as the affective dimension of liberation, enabling and sustaining the ethical and political engagement required of authentic Christian discipleship. Dispassion, which is never apathy, complacency, or inaction, can be understood as the freedom to feel feelings that do not control or determine behaviors. Contemporary ethical and political engagement requires the rigorously honest recognition of the dangers of codependence masquerading as Christian care. A dispassionate approach to activism requires a healthy skepticism regarding the vociferous and passionate enthusiasm that is often mistaken for deep and abiding commitment. Building coalitions and fostering relationships among unlikely allies requires both mindful discernment and the active cultivation of impersonal instrumentality. This is a kenotic emptying of selfhood and a rejection of an egotism that binds. Such an approach can be depicted as a grafting of the Patristic notion of dispassion to the practices of liberation — at once “physically concrete and spiritually open”[3] — of men and women in recovery from active addiction.

——

[1] Michael E. Lee, Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013), Kindle Locations 812-814.

[2] R. Michael Wyatt, “Experience and Community: Twelve-Step Program Theory, American Pragmatism, and Christian Theology” (PhD diss., Emory University, 1996), 3.

[3] Wyatt, 199.


Mauricio Najarro is a doctoral student at the Graduate Theological Union

Humans, Not Convicts: Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Stephanie Gaskill on her research on “moral rehabilitation,” a faith-based reform program at Angola Prison in Louisiana.


Humans, Not Convicts:
Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

by Stephanie Gaskill

Jesus on the Cross

Bobby Wallace, pictured in center, plays the role of Jesus in The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play performed by prisoners from Angola Prison and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in Angola’s famous rodeo arena.

Two basic questions drive my research on religion and mass incarceration. First, how did the U.S. come to incarcerate so many of its Black and Latino citizens? Second, how can the system of mass incarceration be dismantled? I focus in particular on the idea that the fate of the prison system hinges on whether or not prisoners are perceived to be human beings. Prison populations rose dramatically in the 1970s in part because prisoners at this time were portrayed as less than human. Popular media drew implicit connections between people of color and criminality, capitalizing on long-standing racial prejudices to make the mass imprisonment of black and brown people publicly acceptable. It would seem to follow, then, that refuting such depictions could help to dismantle mass incarceration: prove that prisoners are human beings, and the public will no longer consent to their imprisonment.

But how exactly do prisoners and their advocates prove that prisoners are humans? Who determines what acceptable proof of humanity is? I investigate the role of religion in this strategy through one case study: moral rehabilitation at Angola Prison in Louisiana. Angola is known for its origins as a slave plantation and its reputation as “the bloodiest prison in America.” Because of Louisiana’s draconian sentencing laws, Angola is home to the largest population of lifers in the world. But moral rehabilitation, a program of evangelical faith-based prisoner reform initiated by Angola’s long-time warden, Burl Cain, presents the supposedly “softer side” of this notorious prison. Moral rehabilitation is supposed to reduce violence and increase productivity inside the prison. But the successes of moral rehabilitation are also meant to convince members of the public that prisoners are human beings capable of change and worthy of a second chance. The fact that prisoners participate in the religious education and programming offered through moral rehabilitation is supposed to be particularly compelling proof of their humanity.

The fact that moral rehabilitation asserts prisoners’ humanity through their religious activity is especially fraught for African Americans incarcerated at Angola. African Americans’ humanity has been challenged on a variety of fronts, from slavery to the present, and attempts to prove black humanity have often been met with skepticism and scorn. Furthermore, religion has been both a boon and a burden for African Americans, used to render blacks more sympathetic to whites, but also to cast African Americans as excessively emotional and incapable of functioning in “civilized” society.

In this context, I am investigating how different groups associated with Angola implement or strategically navigate moral rehabilitation to prove that prisoners are humans. I examine the perspectives of the warden, prison ministry volunteers, members of the public, and prisoners themselves, focusing on the roles of race and religion in each group’s efforts to promote prisoners’ humanity and criminal justice reform. I conclude my project with a chapter on men released from Angola after they were exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. Exonerees’ struggles to rebuild their lives after incarceration highlight the question of African American humanity in light of the monetary and moral debt owed to them. If proving prisoners’ morality is the means to end mass incarceration, what moral reckoning will occur once the system is dismantled?

Ultimately, I hope my research can shed light on the benefits and pitfalls of humanization of prisoners as a strategy for ending mass incarceration, as well as the complicated role religion and race play in this strategy.


Stephanie Gaskill is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina’s Religious Studies Department.

Ferguson and Theology: A Special Symposium

This week Syndicate Theology is hosting a special symposium on “Ferguson and Theology.”  Each day they will publish a different essay by a leading ethicist or theologian, exploring what it might mean for Christian theology—and the Christian church—to respond justly to the death of Michael Brown and the on-going protest and resistance efforts in Ferguson, Missouri.  Begin Reading Now

Ferguson-Cover-2


From Syndicate Theology:

We are in the midst of harsh and brutal times. In such times theology can appear most distant, most irrelevant, most tone-deaf to the kinds of material challenges that human persons face in the struggle for their voices to be heard, for their bodies to be recognized, and for their deaths to be properly grieved. In the coming week, Syndicate Theology will feature five significant essays by leading and emergent ethicists and theologians, exploring what it might mean for Christian theology—and the Christian church—to respond justly to the death of Michael Brown and the on-going protest and resistance efforts in Ferguson, Missouri. Diverse perspectives and experiences are voiced here, and there are indeed important differences that will surface between our panelists. What does unite these voices is the plea for a radical, interventionary theopolitics: the initiation of a political project, aimed at dismantling a white supremacist world order by, as Slavoj Zizek suggests, “intervening from the standpoint of its repressed truth,” in such a way that changes the coordinates of possibility.

Begin Reading Now

Reflections on Ferguson from Vincent Lloyd

No Justice, No Peace:
Reflections on the Tragedy of Ferguson

Political Theology Today | August 19, 2014

Vincent

Three years before, Eleanor Bumpurs had been shot. A sixty-six year old black woman shot by a white police officer. Shot twice. With a shotgun. In her home. A case against the police officer wound through the courts in fits and starts. In 1987 the officer was acquitted. It was then, on the streets in front of the courthouse, that the press recorded for the first time the chant, “no justice, no peace.”

It is a chant that has been heard frequently in Ferguson, Missouri over the past several days, and it has been heard frequently across the country over the past quarter century when incidents of racial injustice surface. The chant expresses and justifies anger – perhaps something stronger, perhaps the opposite of peace, violence.

In a nation that likes its minorities peaceful, especially when they protest, in a nation that remembers its greatest racial struggles of the past century as essentially non-violent, this chant is disconcerting. It challenges the anodyne equation of love and justice. More fundamentally, it challenges the illusory consensus that love and justice are the way we, as a nation, will make ourselves better.

Does “love and justice” secularize into “no justice, no peace”? Once the Christian moral message of the civil rights movement has finally faded, are we left with irreligious fury?

These questions presume that “no justice, no peace” has a normative rather than a descriptive meaning. In other words, they presume that violence is commended as a response to injustice. What if we hear the two beats of the chant together, describing our world, or our neighborhood. There is both no justice and there is no peace: we are far from the land of milk and honey.

Click here to continue reading…