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Leaving No Others Behind This Ramadan

A bail fund to help free detained Muslims finds new urgency as Covid-19 spreads rapidly through prisons and jails.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In 1999, speaking at a party for recently released political prisoners, community organizer and former Black Panther Safiya Bukhari reflected on the ambivalent nature of the occasion. It was a celebration, but also a kind of mourning. “Every time a freedom fighter comes home, it’s like a part of us is out there again, it’s like a ray of hope for everybody else,” she said. “But when you leave, and you leave those others behind, it’s like you leave part of you inside the institution.” As Bukhari told it, liberation was a project for the collective. No one gets there alone.

Zakat, an annual tax on wealth that is one of the five pillars of Islam, is a foundation of that tradition. There are eight uses for it, including helping the poor, and throughout the month of Ramadan Muslims contribute to zakat-eligible charities and fundraisers. But the Quran also specifies one use as to “free the captives [or slaves].” 

Taking up this call in 2018, Sapelo Square—a blog documenting and archiving the Black Muslim experience in the United States—launched Believers Bail Out, in partnership with MPower Change, Sirat Chicago, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund. At the time, founder Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer told the Chicago Tribune, “Bail out is the tactic, it’s not the endgame. The endgame is to get rid of money bonds and mass incarceration.”

During its first Ramadan, BBO raised $153,000 from Muslims worldwide and helped free more than 11 people. In the years since, BBO has raised over $250,000 in zakat and sadaqah (charity) funds to bail Muslims out of jail or immigrant detention facilities. Of those funds, $189,000 have been used to free 21 people. 

While the mission of the project remains unchanged, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made the work all the more urgent. Incarcerated populations are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus as they lack access to basic necessities like clean water, soap, and adequate room to practice social distancing. The consequences have been deadly: At the start of April, The New York Times reported there were 1,324 confirmed cases connected to prisons and jails, including 32 deaths. And a study released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union predicts mass incarceration could add 100,000 to the U.S. coronavirus death toll.

While BBO takes direction from the Quran and other Islamic textual sources, the organization is also drawing from a deeper tradition of Black Muslims’ pursuit of liberation in the U.S. 

More than half a million people are held on bail in jails alone right now in this country, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, and 70 percent of them are being held pretrial, which means that they haven’t been convicted of any crime. In the current system, poverty becomes its own sentence and a weapon against different communities: The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding found in 2018 that one-third of Muslims in the U.S. live at or below the poverty line and Black Muslim households are more likely than any other Muslim racial group to earn less than $30,000 a year. (The Pew Research Center found a similar wealth gap in 2017.)  

This level of structural inequity, along with the fact that Muslims are over-represented in state prisons, informs BBO’s work. “Prisons and jails are not safe for anyone,” Kamilah A. Pickett, education co-chair for BBO, told me. “The government has decided that Muslims and the practice of Islam inside prison and jails pose a threat, and they use it as justification to make it difficult for Muslims to practice their faith.”

Muslims are not new to carceral systems. Garrett Felber, assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi and author of Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State, said, “Muslims in the Nation of Islam entered prisons during World War II for their refusal to register with the selective service, in solidarity with the Japanese and in opposition to the U.S. nation state. Nearly 200 Muslim men were incarcerated during the war, making them the largest group of Black conscientious objectors during World War II.”

Then as now, incarcerated Muslims were often prevented from fully practicing their faith. Over the years, the denial of religious freedom has manifested in a number of ways, like harsher treatment by administrators or charging three times more for copies of the Quran than for the Bible.

Discrimination in detention facilities run by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement looks largely the same. In February 2019, Somali immigrants previously detained in Florida sued ICE for denying them the ability to practice their faith. The men also reported abuse like lack of access to proper medical care and the use of pepper spray as a form of punishment. 

Omar, who was previously incarcerated in Illinois and asked that I not use his name to protect his privacy, said he experienced this kind of thing firsthand. Biased policies made it so that Islamic services were “sporadic” and “inconsistent,” and he encountered limits on the number of people allowed to attend. Muslims were also frisked before and after services. He told me he was also not permitted zabihah, Islamically slaughtered meats, and was denied even kosher meals. 

BBO’s focus on freeing Muslims comes from recognizing that “anti-Muslim racism exposes Muslims to increased risk of victimization, surveillance, and denial of religious freedom,” per its website. Pickett said, “Notice we say ‘increased risk’. The plain fact is that all of those things happen to Muslims walking around free. Prisons and jails are not safe for anyone. The government has decided that Muslims and the practice of Islam inside prison and jails pose a threat and they use it as justification to make it difficult for Muslims to practice their faith.”

Just as there is a tradition of anti-Muslim discrimination in jails and prisons, there’s a tradition of resistance, Felber explained, as “incarcerated Muslims began suing wardens and correction commissioners for the constitutional right to the freedom of religion.” This included cases like the 1961 Pierce v. LaVallee, brought by three members of the Nation of Islam who complained of mistreatment at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York, including being placed in solitary confinement for their religious beliefs.  

In the 1964 case Cooper v. Pate, Thomas Cooper X, an incarcerated Black Muslim, said he was denied permission to purchase Black Muslim publications and access to the Quran at the Illinois State Prison despite officials allowing other faith groups their religious texts. Cooper’s case led to the Supreme Court’s 1964 decision that the Bill of Rights applied inside prisons. 

However, Felber noted, Cooper’s legal victory was the “fruition of a much longer struggle by jailhouse lawyers such as Martin Sostre, one of the plaintiffs involved in the Pierce case who also filed writs leading up to that victory, which slowly chipped away at the walls between prisons and the courts. The Cooper case, Felber said, “is seen as the Brown v. Board of Education of the prisoners’ rights movement and ushered forth an array of prison litigation that greatly expanded the rights of prisoners and their access to the courts throughout the 1960s and 1970s.”

Cooper and Sostre did not call themselves abolitionists, but their legacy informs present abolition movements. “The limited rights that incarcerated folks have are largely due to the decades of organizing by incarcerated Black Muslims,” Pickett said. “Their ability to successfully organize while incarcerated makes them a threat to a system that thrives off exploitation and the denial of basic rights.”

Black Muslims also organized outside of carceral institutions and within their own communities. Growing up in the West End of Atlanta community of Imam Jamil Al-Amin, Pickett said she saw it often. “It wasn’t until I was grown and had moved away that I realized that people didn’t regularly talk about the ills of mass incarceration and the prison system during Jummah khutbahs [Friday noon sermon],” she told me, adding that she became used to seeing people cycling in and out of incarceration. Her neighbors organized to support them.  

“[W]e rallied against injustices and pushed for change. I don’t know that any of the elders in my community called themselves abolitionists, but they did abolition work,” Pickett said. “I went to law school because I wanted to be part of that work.”

For members of BBO, there is no separating that work from elements of liberation embedded within Islam. Alongside the Quran, Muslims often turn to hadith, records of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). One hadith invoked by Omar states, “Doing justice between two people is sadaqah.” 

“The zakat is a divinely inspired mechanism in Islam, to which indigent Muslims have a right,” he added. “BBO humbly reminds the Muslim community … that the incarcerated, detained Muslim population should not suffer another miscarriage of rights by being denied sadaqah of zakat.”

“Who are we obligated to help, and who can demand that of us?” Pickett said, reflecting on the scope of the project and its foundation in her faith. “How I answer that question colors the way I try to move through the world as a Black Muslim woman. I value the work BBO does and is trying to do, and I value the community we are growing because we have decided that we are going to challenge a cornerstone of the carceral system—bail—as part of our faith practice.”