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Radical Religion in Prison

Attorney Brian Levin investigates the tenuous balance between security and radical, racial-supremacist religion in prison.

Although Intelligent Tarref Allah's bumpy path to finding faith has been unconventional, he is by no means alone. "Intel" Allah's case is one of many that prison officials around America are contending with as they try to balance the rights of prisoners to pursue religion with the need to keep the prisons safe.

Allah's journey started in New York in August 1994 after he was arrested for killing a man who testified against him in a previous murder case — ironically, one in which he was acquitted. During the time he was incarcerated awaiting trial on New York's Rikers Island, Intel, then known as Rashaad Marria, changed his name and joined a group called the Nations of Gods and Earths, also known as Five Percent Nation or simply the Five Percenters.

After being convicted of murdering the witness and while serving a 19 years-to-life term for that murder, Allah became embroiled in a six-year battle with state prison officials over his right to possess literature and congregate with other Five Percenters. In a controversial ruling this July, a New York federal district court judge found that Intel's beliefs were protected from suppression by prison officials under the First Amendment and federal law because they were sincere and religious in nature.

Ironically, Five Percenters do not contend that they adhere to a religion at all, but rather to a way of life. Followers believe that 5% of the world consists of righteous teachers who strive for freedom and justice. The other 95%, they maintain, consists of a ruling class of 10% who enslave the remaining 85% with false teachings of an illusory God. Members follow dietary rules, fast on holy days and study from The Book of Wisdom.

To many prison officials across the country, the Five Percenters group is simply a violence-prone black supremacist prison gang. Five Percent Nation is an offshoot of the black supremacist Nation of Islam (NOI), which in turn is an offshoot of mainstream Islam. NOI adherents believe that God appeared through NOI's founder, Fard Muhammed, while Five Percenters maintain that each black man is God, and should take the name Allah.

Unlike traditional Islam, which regards the Five Percenters and NOI as heretical, these offshoot movements maintain that white people are devils created through a separate breeding process, known as "grafting."

The Right to Religion
Intel's recent court victory is the latest case where convicts have resorted to litigation to protect their exercise of non-traditional supremacist beliefs. Most cases challenge restrictions relating to association, access to reading materials, hygiene and dietary practices.

In 1987, the United States Supreme Court held that prison walls "do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution." (Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84). The high court further held that prison regulations impinging on constitutional rights must be "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests."

Still, the Court granted deference to prison officials by instructing judges to exercise a "policy of judicial restraint" in cases of constitutional claims by prisoners.

On Sept. 22, 2000, President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which enhances the religious rights of prisoners. The law reads in relevant part: "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution ... even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless [it] ... (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." (42 U.S.C.§ 2000cc-1 (a) (2002).)

Although RLUIPA protects religion, it still leaves it to the courts to define what beliefs actually constitute a religion. The decisions in this area are often in conflict. Because Intel's case only covers New York, prisons there are required to treat Five Percenters with deference. (New York officials had previously settled with NOI and agreed to treat that group as a religious entity.) (Muhammad v. Coughlin, 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5398, No. 91 Civ. 6333 (S.D.N.Y 1995).)

Across the river in New Jersey, federal courts have upheld restrictions on Five Percenters on the basis of their designation as a "security threat group," rather than as a religion. (Fraise v. Terhune, 283 F.3d 506 (3d Cir. 2002).) In South Carolina, prison officials also prevailed against Five Percenter inmates in a pre-RLUIPA suit. (Inmates Designated as Five Percenters, 14 F.3d 464 (4th Cir. 1999).)

The Limits of Faith
Black supremacist convicts are hardly alone in their legal tangles with corrections officials. For years, imprisoned adherents of the virulently anti-Semitic and white supremacist World Church of the Creator's (formerly Church of the Creator) "Creativity" ideology have faced an uphill battle of their own.

Creativity was formed in the 1970s by the late racist Ben Klassen and, like Five Percenters, its adherents consider traditional religions as a ruse to deny racial empowerment. "Creators" have sometimes followed the movement's calls for — or "racial holy war" — by committing violent hate crimes.

Creativity "reverend" George Loeb was convicted of the racially motivated murder of a black sailor in Mayport, Fla., in 1991, and follower Ben Smith was the triggerman in a July 1999 Midwest shooting spree that left two people dead and nine others wounded.

Federal courts in California and Wisconsin have upheld the denial of Creativity newspapers to state prison inmates. In 2001, a Connecticut state judge ruled that while Creativity may be a religion, prison officials could not be forced to provide inmate Michael Scatena with food free of kosher symbols on its labels.

Scatena maintained that eating foods labeled kosher, like Corn Flakes, would conflict with his religious practice of boycotting Jewish influence. The judge reminded Scatena that water is kosher, but the inmate remained unconvinced.

Most recently, in June 2003, Robert Ian Trainer lost his court bid to play a greater role in the group after his release from federal prison. While behind bars for his role in a hate crime, Trainer joined the Creativity movement and had access to written material, but was denied chapel time. Upon his release on parole, he challenged various restrictions on his liberty to attend group meetings and recruit others to the movement.

A federal district court in Maryland ruled that even if Creativity were a religion, Trainer's crime justified restrictive conditions on how he practiced his faith as long as they were "reasonably related to the goals of supervision." Although Trainer could possess literature, he was denied the right to participate in Creativity "outreach" programs or meet with more than one person at a time to discuss his Creativity beliefs. (United States v. Trainer, 265 F. Supp. 2d 589 (2003).)

All courts agree that convicts have the right to pursue their religion, but they also acknowledge the government's responsibility to supervise convicts. What remains to be seen is what practical standard emerges that meets both interests from the hodgepodge of decisions.

Attorney Brian Levin is a an associate professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernadino.