“Praise the Gods, Martin Luther King is dead.”
Monroe Haynes was an 18-year-old in Vietnam fighting a war he did not understand, with people he did not know, when he heard his commander proclaim this statement. Just barely an adult, Haynes knew only that he was fighting for peace in a foreign land whilst a freedom fighter was martyred back home by the people he was fighting for.
After serving two years in this war, Haynes was honorably discharged and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, categorizing him as a completely disabled veteran according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Returning home, he saw the place he had left through a lens warped by trauma. He received his barber’s certification in Compton, California, and began working in a barber shop in an attempt to normalize a stress he could not escape. At one point when he was visiting his family in Mississippi, he was picked up by the police on minor charges and landed in prison, where his life took a new turn.
While serving his sentence in the penitentiary in Georgia, Haynes was introduced to a group of Muslims praying together. Although they followed the beliefs of many different sects within Islam, from the Nation of Islam to Sunniism to Shi’ism to non-denominational, they still gathered to pray together and discuss the core principles of their faith. Haynes later recalled that he learned more about unity in those encounters than he had at any other point in his life.
Every Friday the Muslim community in the prison would congregate for prayer (Jummah) led by the prison chaplain. Eventually Haynes decided to join in. He was moved by the uniformity of Islam and the way individuals who looked just like him found the faith so liberating. After that first Jummah, he began attending more and more, eventually converting while in prison. “The way the faith moved those people was something I wanted. There was a simplicity to the faith, I could open a Quran and understand what it says. The theology people spoke of was not grand and complicated; it was just simple.”
Haynes had come into contact with Islam years before, and recalled his memories of seeing Malcolm X about a year before Malcolm’s death in 1963.
“I remember seeing Malcolm and nothing made sense to me when I was 15, just broad phrases about unifying the black community and fighting the oppressors. It was only when I converted to Islam in ’94 that I thought back to that moment and realized the true liberation that came from Islam.”
Haynes’ story of religious awakening is hardly unique. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 51% of chaplains stated that Islam was the fastest-growing religion in prisons; those same chaplains noted that Muslims are among the most underserved of incarcerated people. Many are triply marginalized: first as prisoners, secondly by race, and thirdly by separation from the Ummah—the worldwide Islamic community.
I stumbled upon Haynes while researching incarcerated Muslims in the Champaign County jail. As I sat in the visitation room only a glass window away from Haynes, my brother in Islam, I saw for the first time in my life what it was like to be a Muslim but not part of a bigger Ummah. Across from me sat a man who had found Islam in the hardest of circumstances while being caged in a prison and regarded as subhuman. His Islamic faith does not waver, but, sadly, the community of Muslims meant to support him is virtually nonexistent in his life.
The situation of incarcerated individuals seems to be an issue separate from faith for many Muslims. While a second-generation Muslim living in the United States shares the same faith as these incarcerated Muslims, many of whom are African American, their life experiences are immensely different, and a bridge between these communities is rarely ever made. Despite these differences, the ideal of Ummah obligates Muslims to support one another and reach across these divides. It is an obligation that unfortunately goes largely unmet.
Haynes suffers from more than just religious isolation, however. When I found Haynes he was a 69-year-old man sitting in a jail full of 20- and 30-year-olds, waiting for a trial that had been delayed for two years. The right to a “quick and speedy trial” has not been much of a right for Haynes. Prior to being incarcerated, he was diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, which usually requires that individuals wear specific kinds of shoes and take medication to ease nerve pain. He was prescribed Gabapentin, a nerve pain medication, but when he was arrested the jail stopped his medication, and it was months before he could receive it again with the help of his lawyer, local attorney Ruth Wyman. During this painful time of waiting for his medication and becoming increasingly handicapped, Haynes turned to his faith again and again, but it was a lonely journey.
Haynes will continue to face hurdles in his life ahead even after the case is resolved. The life of disabled veterans isn’t easy to begin with, but being an incarcerated Black American sets you up for unimaginable difficulties. His story highlights the way mass incarceration contributes to dehumanization, disproportionately affecting the poor and African Americans, and how divisions within the Ummah sadly contribute to this isolation.
The experiences of African American Muslims in incarceration and the experiences of the immigrant Muslim community are not mutually exclusive and should not be the reason why one community is separate from the other, especially when there is so much overlap in their marginalization. The issue of mass incarceration in America is a Muslim issue, not only because it affects a Muslim community within prisons, but because it is an issue of injustice. Seeing the humanity in Monroe Haynes, and in so many other incarcerated individuals, is the first step in bridging the gap between these divisions in the community, and is the only way to ensure that Islam finally and truly does bring the peace it promises.
Isra Rahman is a junior at the University of Illinois interested in community activism and criminal justice reform with hopes of going to law school.