Various recent tough-on-crime measures have yielded an overall decline in violent crime, the city trumpeted not long ago. They’ve also yielded a nasty byproduct: overcrowding in the Philadelphia Prison System. A class-action lawsuit against the prisons, set aside as populations dipped in 2011, has been reinstated. And hundreds of individual cases filed by inmates related to jail conditions are in federal court. In December, the city won one of those cases, filed by four Muslim current and former inmates of Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the city’s largest jail. The men argued that their religious rights were violated because they weren’t allowed to pray in day-rooms or return to their cells to pray; there was no room in cells with extra cots to roll out prayer mats; and they were allowed to attend Jum’ah services only intermittently, not weekly as the religious practice requires.
Among its defenses, the city pointed the finger at Philly’s Muslim community. “We’re just having a little trouble recruiting people of the Islamic faith to come here and volunteer,” says prisons spokesperson Shawn Hawes. She says system has no trouble recruiting volunteers of other faiths. It has 21 contract and volunteer chaplains, including a single part-time imam.
But Jerry Williams, who represented the inmates, says the root of the problem is a matter of policy rather than lack of volunteers. “No matter how many imams they have, they would limit attendance at Jum’ah,” he says.
Mumina Kowalski, secretary of the Association of Muslim Chaplains and a former Pennsylvania state prison chaplain, acknowledges that recruitment has historically been a challenge. “The idea of chaplaincy as a profession is new to Muslims and not really well understood,” she says. For volunteers, “The clearances are very strict and kind of intimidating,” especially in a post-9/11 climate. And, to understate the matter, “The perks are not there.”
She says that doesn’t let prison and jail operators off the hook, though. “This is a First Amendment right.”