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COVID-19: A Muslim Perspective on Incarceration and Emancipation During A Public Health Crisis

Saleem Safdar, Guest Contributor

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prison

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has brought new challenges to society that demand solutions.  One such dilemma that has emerged is the spread of the novel coronavirus amongst prison populations and staff.

In Maryland, for example, there are over 200 coronavirus cases reported in the Maryland Prison system.  In New York, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 800 city correction employees have tested positive for Covid-19, and eight have died.  Also, 1,200 inmates have tested positive and there have been at least 10 deaths from COVID-19.

Alarming reports such as these across the nation have sparked a response by the government to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the prison population and among correctional employees.

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In Washington, for example, the governor has commuted approximately 300 sentences, and over 40 prisoners have received work release furloughs.  Around the country, many low-level and non-violent offenders have been released.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 300 prisoners have been released in Orange County, Florida. Over 100 inmates have been released from prisons in Nevada and Alabama; 531 people have been released in Philadelphia, PA, and 1,000 prisoners are slated to be released from New Jersey prisons. Similar efforts underway in most states across the country.

In Maryland, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has been at the forefront of the effort to reduce the prison population at-risk for coronavirus, and on Sunday, April 19th, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order granting early release to hundreds of inmates to reduce the spread of the disease.

The ripple effect of such efforts are having an impact globally. According to reports, Poland has announced plans to release up to 12,000 convicts, and Iran has already released close to 80,000 prisoners.

UN experts have urged action, including Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stated,

“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so.  The consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic.”

What should inform the Muslim community’s position?

This Ramadan, as we seek to uphold these principles in our daily activities, Muslims cannot neglect prisoners’ rights.Click To Tweet

Following in the example of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), the noble qualities of justice, mercy and compassion must be factored into the equation.

He said: “The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.” (Tirmidhi 1924).

According to a different hadith, or recorded narration of Prophetic sayings, he said: “Allah does not show mercy to those who do not show mercy to people.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

As Imam Omar Suleiman, founder of Yaqeen Institute, stated in part on the Poor People’s Campaign Appeal on Twitter on April 20, 2020:

“Ramadan is a time of fasting and sacrifice to clarify what is necessary and just. It is right and just that protections are enacted for people in mental health facilities, prisons and juvenile detention centers, especially supplies, personnel, testing and treatment. This includes the release of all at risk populations and non-violent offenders and detainees. There are 2.3 million incarcerated people and over 52,000 people in detention centers.”

Conditions in most prisons today clearly create an unsafe environment with regards to the elevated risk of infection with the novel coronavirus.  Releasing low-level, non-violent offenders who are most at risk is an act of Prophetic mercy.

As stated in the Holy Quran: if anyone saves one life, it’s as if they had saved all of mankind. (Surah Ma’idah 5:32).  Saving one non-violent offender from the contagion of Covid-19 in prison may not seem significant in the grand scheme of things, but that act of mercy and compassion reverberates and impacts on greater society.    

In Islamic law, or shariah, maqasid (aims or purposes) and maslaha (welfare or public interest) are two doctrines that inform rulings by jurists.

Maslahah “consist of the five essential values (al-daruriyyat al-khamsah) namely religion, life, intellect, lineage and property.  In this case, it serves the public interest to attempt to reduce the spread of novel coronavirus, thereby furthering preservation of life.

Our country’s broken criminal justice system is in desperate need of restorative measures. Prison is not a place where a civilized society can stow away prisoners, discard the key, and forget about them. Click To Tweet

Prisoners are entitled to basic human rights. To this effect, it is documented that as Caliph, the beloved cousin of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), Ali ibn Abi Talib raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), used to inspect the prisons, meet the prisoners in them and inquire about their circumstances.

The urgency of the principles of mercy and preservation of life need to be a priority for those entrusted with the authority to make a difference in the lives of the many low-level, non-violent offenders that find themselves caught in the sinuous vice grip of the penal system.

This Ramadan, as we seek to uphold these principles in our daily activities, Muslims cannot neglect prisoners’ rights.

We must make a difference where we can.

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Saleem Safdar, Esq. is an Assistant State’s Attorney who works for the City of Baltimore. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University, and his Juris Doctor from Fordham University School of Law. He resides in Maryland.

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#Islam

Podcast: Hijabi Girls in a Barbie World: The Halima Aden Edition

Zainab (AnonyMouse)

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Panel discussion with Zainab b. Younus, Hena Zuberi, her daughter, and Fousia from the Naptime is Sacred podcast to talk about Halima Aden’s Instagram posts about hijab and her modeling career.

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Podcast: David’s Dollar | Tariq Touré and Khaled Nurhssien

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We often preach about our children learning the importance of money, group economics, and developing healthy spending habits. How awesome would it be to have a fully illustrated picture book that explores how a dollar travels from hand-to-hand?

Join Khaled Nurhssien and award winning poet and author Tariq Touré as they discuss Tariq’s new children’s book David’s Dollar. In this Interview they touch on art, Islam’s approach to community and Tariq’s creative process.

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#Society

Beyond 2020: Grounding Our Politics in Community

Kyle Ismail, Guest Contributor

Published

As tense and agonizing as these unending election days have been, it pales in comparison to the last four years.  I plainly remember how it all began on the night of November 07, 2016. I watched as the political map of the US became increasingly red late into the night. All the social media banter, conspiracy theories and left-wing critiques of candidate Hillary Clinton, formed an amorphous blob of white noise as I heard Trump announced as the next president. Now that Trump has run for re-election, half the country was hoping for a repudiation but will have to settle for the fact that despite a small margin, Donald J. Trump will not have a second chance to erode our democratic institutions and divide us. But we can’t move forward until each of us acknowledges our own pathological role in what we’ve become as a deeply divided country. 

We need to grapple with how we can gradually improve the circus-like reality that has become our ordinary, daily politics. We’ll relive more and perhaps improved “Trumps” if we don’t accept our own responsibility in creating a divided America. This starts with being better members of local communities. Here are a few of Trump-induced realizations that I’ve come to accept:

  1. Caring about our immediate neighbors and listening to their challenges and concerns is the part of political engagement that we all have to embrace above and beyond actually voting if we hope to be more than a 50/50 nation.
  2. Social media and its profit-driven algorithms are actually eroding how we see each other but could also be altered to help better educate us about our local social/political landscape.
  3. Local Politics has direct impact on our lives and is also at the heart our religious obligations to our neighbors. It also sets the tone for where the federal level derives policies that prove to be best practices (some examples are included below).
  4. Agitation and protest are not the same as being politically organized on a local level. Protest is sometimes needed, but it will never replace consistent and patient work. We learned this lesson with the Arab Spring as that movement failed to transform into a movement that was able to govern effectively. And the same appears to be true about the Black Lives Matter movement.

The voting is over for now. But voting is really the smallest part of being committed to bettering our communities. It was Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) who gave the most specific definition of community/neighbor and encouraged his followers to guard the rights of the neighbor:

“Your neighbor is 40 houses ahead of you and 40 houses at your back, 40 houses to your left and 40 houses to your right” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

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Why does this relate to being politically organized?? The need for political organizing comes when any group of people want to create change in accordance with their values. We’ve all watched protest after protest that change little to nothing at the neighborhood level. This will continue to happen without organization, which span school boards, block clubs, nonprofits, and religious community outreach.  How can Muslims enjoin right and discourage wrong in any meaningful way? It comes through having authentic relationships with neighbors and turning that into organized and engaged communities.

Rosa Parks

Nothing illuminates the value of such relationships better than the story of Rosa Parks in her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. People often think that she was the first brave soul to defy the custom of allowing whites to sit before African-Americans could be seated on her city’s buses. Nothing could be further from the truth. The difference was that her sets of relationships were so interwoven into her local community that it forced a massive response. Park’s connections spanned socioeconomic circles as she had close friendships from professors to field hands. She held memberships in a dozen local organizations including her church and the local NAACP. She was a volunteer seamstress in poor communities and provided the same for profit in wealthy white circles. When someone with her relational positioning was able to leverage the political organizing ability of MLK and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was sparked.

When something happens to Muslims, who can we mobilize to respond? Who becomes angry? Who do we work with in our communities to create policies that reflect our values And what are our internal barriers to such cooperation?

“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and that is the weakest of faith.” Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)

Our Predecessors Organized Locally

At some point in time voting became the sum total of political engagement in the minds of many and is now deemed by some as worthless. We quickly forget that the organizations that battled for voting rights were first locally organized to improve communities. SNCC, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and the Urban League all formed to create change in various ways and the fight for voting rights was a component of these local agendas. So when we’re tempted to believe that voting doesn’t matter, it’s likely due to our lack of engagement in local issues that form the contours of our community life. If you’ve ever heard of Ella Baker or Fannie Lou Hamer (worth researching!), you probably never bought into this type of logic.

One of the many lessons we can pull from this rich history is that we cannot pursue policies, seek alliances, or negotiate a position with political parties (see Ice Cube’s debacle in negotiating with Trump) without first being organized from within. No set of friendships or outside philanthropic support can supplant the need for internal organization. This lack of organized political engagement has weakened Muslims in general but has fatally weakened African-American Muslims as voices within the larger Black community – a voice that gave Islam its first fully accepted and influential place in American society.

Immigrant-based Muslim communities could also benefit from a local approach because despite being several generations in America, their American bonafides are still not set in stone. Concerns about Islamophobia will not change outside of developing authentic relationships with non-Muslims.

This also pushes back against a culture shaped disproportionately by social media algorithms that promote isolation and division for the sake of profit. Our attention to the national news cycle also takes our attention away from local communities where our power is formed. In this type of political malaise, re-engagement in local politics and community relationships can bring us back to important principles that resonate with the values of Islam.

Local politics help shape federal policy

The final word on any law or policy rests with the federal government, but much of what becomes orthodoxy begins with a few concerned citizens in local communities. As with community policing, criminal justice reform, climate sustainability, or any issues that has not caught on, the federal government will often step back to see how a new law plays out at state and local levels. Illinois didn’t wait for Obamacare but has a well-established program to ensure that anyone 18 and younger in Illinois has health insurance through a program called All Kids . Colorado has, in the midst of protests against police brutality, altered their law of Qualified Immunity to make police more accountable. And California has advanced the conversation on reparations  by sanctioning a study to understand how the state could benefit by redressing the descendants of American slavery.

By advancing issues and electing representatives who support the causes we believe in, we insert ourselves into a narrative that would’ve otherwise been forged without us. There’s no shortcut in this process short of rolling up our sleeves to understand our local systems and existing organizations. Moneyed interests are prepare to control the narrative regardless of who the president is and we have to remake this system from the ground up. Our history provides us with a roadmap to do this and it goes far beyond being citizens who only argue over national issues while standing on the sidelines. Remembering our 40 neighbors as advised by the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the best place to start.

Some helpful links:

Local Elections

State Legislatures

School Boards

County Prosecutors

Mayors

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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