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Muslim Prisoners Suffer "Invisible Punishment"

By Waheedah Muhammad

According to a report recently released by the New York based Sentencing Project, a staggering 625,000 prisoners will be released from prison this year.  As usual, these men and women will confront overwhelming obstacles upon returning to open society—poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and inadequate support systems.  

Although the report contained no data regarding the number of Muslims that will be released, Marc Mauer, a co-editor of the report, told Grassroots that there is much anecdotal information that shows Muslims represent a sizable number of the prison population.  And like other former prisoners, the problems confronting Muslims will be compounded by the injustice of what the report refers to as an “invisible punishment.”  The report, Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration is a collection of 16 essays and reports that focus on the injustice suffered by ex-offenders and offers some alarming statisitics regarding the growing prison population.

“Invisible punishment,” unjustly penalizes former prisoners after their release by restricting their participation in programs that are the usual safety net for those in similar circumstances—food stamps, welfare, public housing and student loans.  By legally restricing  participation by former prisoners in these vitally needed resources, state and federal agencies continue to “invisibly punish” former prisoners long after they have “paid their debt to society.” 
Statistics within the study indicate that this is a growing problem that will only get larger: the number of prisoners has tripled since 1983—the largest prison population in the industrialized world.  And, not surprisingly, the number of prisoners released has doubled since 1984.    That means that like other former prisoners, Muslims will be re-entering the general population in record numbers this year, and in even greater numbers in the next few years.  
For those who converted to Islam while in prison “invisible punishment” can very likely be compounded as they often become estranged from families who do not understand Islam, or who may have a negative impression of Islam and Muslims.  Similar circumstances exist for those who were Muslims before they were imprisoned--they are shunned by their Muslim families, who are shamed by their conduct, and by a Muslim community that all too often views them as “undesirables.” 

It is a great injustice that after paying their debt as required by law and the penal system many former prisoners--even Muslims--feel forced to re-enter a life of crime because they find no support system to enable them to legally support themselves or their families.   As the number of released prisoners swells, laws that restrict them from getting the support they desperately need will be reexamined and challenged.  Current state and federal laws restrict those who have been incarcerated from ever receiving student loans for education, and from living in public or government subsidized housing.  Other laws restrict women who have ever been drug abusers—even though clean--from receiving  welfare even when they are reunited with young children that they are expected to care for. 
As Muslims, we must support the calls for legislation to end this unjust “invisible punishment” of men and women—Muslim and non-Muslim--who struggle to make new and better lives for themselves and their families; and we must begin to partner with groups like the Sentencing Project, that work to fight injustices in the courts and penal systems.

From a historical context, Prophet Muhammad (saws) fought injustice and championed the rights of the disenfranchised and rejected of society. The legacy of Islam is that it offered--and should continue to offer--a spiritual and economic hand up to those in need.  Providing an opportunity for a man or woman to acquire self-sufficiency is an ideal that was espoused by Prophet Muhammad (saws): “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; give him a pole and he can feed himself for a lifetime.”  By providing decent housing, respectable clothing, counseling and job training for those that are entering or re-entering the Muslim community, we not only help the needy, as Islam demands, but enable the community to grow morally and financially stronger.

When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me: That they may walk in the right way.

Quran: 2:186
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