Nation Of Islam Calls On All Prisoners
This article describes highlights of a special gathering at FCI Manchester in January 2000. The words of Minister Benjamin Muhammad of the Nation of Islam were spoken before an audience of 250 prisoners and staff.
By Mujaddid R. Muhammad, Prisoner of the drug war
I am here tonight on behalf of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan to let each one of you know that Allah (God) brought each one of us into this world and nothing, nothing happens in our life except by the permission of God. I'm here tonight by God's permission; you're here tonight by God's permission," said Minister Benjamin F. Muhammad, speaking January 18, 2000 to a near capacity crowd of 250 inmates at the Manchester, Kentucky Federal Correctional Institution.
Commenting on the precedential nature of the gathering Minister Benjamin continued, "I must take time to thank Warden George Snyder and Chief Chaplain Warren H. Dolphus for doing something that is really a 'first' for the Bureau of Prisons. There are not any other meetings like this. Manchester, you're making history tonight. The Director of the Bureau is going to see this tape, and I hope that after she sees it, we can make this more than just a one-time event."
The Mid-Atlantic Regional Chaplain Administrator for the Bureau of Prisons, Robert Danage - the only African-American regional chaplain in the Bureau - made a special appearance for the event and was observably delighted that he did. "I was very pleased earlier to be in the company of our distinguished guest, Dr. Benjamin Muhammad, as he addressed the warden of this facility," began Chaplain Danage.
"He had about an hour and fifteen minutes with the warden and, believe me, all of us were on the edge of our seats. Hearing what I heard the minister talk about this evening almost brought me to tears because he is on the cutting edge. Blessed and encouraged by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Dr. Muhammad took us to the question of doing something real in society at-large to stem this tide of incarceration," said Chaplain Danage.
Challenging his colleagues to use the historic event as a model for the new millennium, Chaplain Danage added, "There is a movement for self-improvement taking place inside the prisons. We need to marshal our resources to design and present programs that really do help these men change for the better. God willing, when they get out, they can make a successful transition back into society."
Unifying around the theme "Moving Beyond Race, Religion and Cultural Diversity: Peace In The New Millennium," the Manchester (Kentucky) Study Group, on the advice of Minister Benjamin, mobilized distinct, recognized prison communities. Hispanics, Latinos, Native Americans and Whites agreed to launch an all-inclusive discussion of the criminal justice/prison reform agenda for the Million Family March.
Describing why he recommended that all flags, religious symbols, and representatives from all the distinct prison communities be allowed to speak, Minister Benjamin stated, "Some of you thought the Nation of Islam was just concerned with Black people. Yes, we are concerned with Black people, but you cannot be concerned with Black people and not be concerned with all people. In truth, no race, no people are going to survive this planet alone. No ideology of supremacy is going to work."
The last twenty years of 'tough on crime' policies have ignited an exponential explosion in the size of what is euphemistically called the "corrections" system. At present, two million people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails - a five-fold increase since 1970. On a per capita basis, more people are imprisoned in America than any other country and, absent a more rational and common sense approach, the prison population is expected to double again by the year 2005.
Noting the widespread hopelessness and despair in prison - fostered by genocidal, mandatory sentences ordered for nonviolent, petty drug users and small-time thieves - the highlight and hope of the program dawned when Minister Benjamin gave prisoners a glimpse of the Million Family March agenda. "We are going to mobilize throughout the United States, and one of the top issues for the Million Family March is going to be prison sentencing and reform."
Minister Benjamin continued, "In our March agenda we'll be addressing the inequities in sentencing and looking at what you should receive while you are here. I think the opportunity for a good education should be available to you. So one purpose of the (Million Family) March is that we raise our voices in your behalf. All we ask, brothers, is that while you have us raising our voices on your behalf on the outside, don't let us down on the inside. We need you to stand up in a righteous way on the inside."
Noting the Congressional one-sidedness in enacting laws, Minister Benjamin announced his intentions to orchestrate hearings within one or two prisons. With one or two members of Congress present, prisoners may take the opportunity to speak about what we have seen or experienced and how the system might be improved so.
"When public policy is codified or recommended, it is directly related to the experiences of those who are imprisoned as opposed to those who work in the system.
"In this way," Minister Benjamin continued, "We can create a balance in how public policy is crafted."
Sharing his own experience of imprisonment, Minister Benjamin sought to provide a model and living example of how inmates must not wastefully and aimlessly serve time insisting with emphasis that regardless of how long our sentences may be, we must 'make time serve us'. "I have been an inmate in the federal prison system, and I served a much longer stint in my home state of North Carolina," said Minister Benjamin.
"Some of you may have heard of the Wilmington Ten case. I have sat in the chairs like you're sitting in now. I'm thankful to God I can say that during my time of confinement, I refused to allow the system to confine my mind. I refused to allow the system to confine my potential. I did not serve time; I made time serve the liberation of my people, and I want you to make your time serve the liberation of your families, the liberation of your communities. But you can't do this until you first serve your own personal liberation, your own personal salvation," the minister confided to an applauding audience.
Overall, Minister Benjamin's message was consistent with the spirit of 'The Million Man March', of committing ourselves to self-improvement via the precepts of atonement, reconciliation and responsibility. Making this process real will enable us to improve not just our own lives, but our families, communities and the world ultimately.
Commenting on the auspiciousness of the program, Brother Joseph X (Frazier) of the Manchester Study Group said, "Minister Benjamin seemed to be a new man with a new mind and a new mission - part of which is the freedom, justice and equality for all incarcerated men and women."
Also expressing gratitude and words of endearment for Minister Benjamin's visit was Chief Chaplain W. H. Dolphus, without whose help the program never would have materialized.
"I certainly have been blessed by what I have heard and seen tonight. This is history in the making, as small as you may think it is. It did my heart just great joy to be able to sit in the room with Minister Muhammad, Warden Snyder and Chaplain Danage. Let me tell you, they dialogued for an hour and fifteen minutes."
Continuing, Chaplain Danage added, "If you know Warden Snyder, then you know a lot of times that doesn't happen, but he and Minister Muhammad had such a good conversation, talking of things they had in common. I'm privileged to be the chaplain at this institution, and a part of this event which will no doubt go down in the annals of history," he said.
Brother Larry X (Rivera), whose family was very instrumental in sponsoring Minister Benjamin's visit said, "Minister Benjamins' clearance to enter a federal prison and lay the foundation for the Million Family March reform agenda represents a break in the gridlock stance of prisoncrats."
Indeed this event did mark a pivotal breakthrough in moderating the hopelessness permeating the lives of staff and prisoners alike.
Following the program, Chaplain Danage invited Minister Benjamin to visit all of the prisons in his region because "we need guidance," he confided. When asked what he thought about the program, the Chief of Security and Custody, Captain Sidney Gunter, stated that "in my 20 years in the Bureau I have never seen a program of this magnitude. It was very good. I'm impressed."
(Editors Note: During his visit to the Manchester FCI, Minister Benjamin gave an extensive interview which will be published in a future issue, Allah (God) willing. Chaplain Warren H. Dolphus, Larry X Rivers and Joseph X Frazisr all contributed to this article.)
In response to a question about his background in Christianity and his decision to embrace Islam, the former NAACP leader once known as Benjamin Chavis said, "What I really wanted to do was build a bridge with the Nation of Islam, but the Church said, 'You can't do that.' Then I said, 'With God all things are possible. You can't say you can't do this or that and say you are a believer.'
"So I accepted this calling, and since 1997 I've been a minister in The Nation of Islam...I just want to end on this point. It was the best decision I ever made in my life. Yes, I lost the $200,000/year job. That's what they were paying me at the NAACP. I had access to Learjets, and could fly anywhere. I've dined at the White House with President Clinton, my wife with Hillary. You have access to everything. Essentially, you are President of Negro America. But even with all that, there is something more important than having money and power, and that is having the right relationship with God. 'Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all His Righteousness, and all the other things will be added unto you"
-Minister Benjamin Muhammad, Director, Million Family March