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Re-entry program gives Muslims second chance

Manya A. Brachear

CHICAGO – Instead of stepping back into lifestyles that risk landing them in prison again, a handful of former inmates who embraced Islam behind bars are spending their days constructing green transitional homes in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood.

The construction crew is part of the Green Re-Entry Project that is converting four foreclosed or abandoned homes into certified green housing for Muslim converts coming out of prison.

The project is part of Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s Project Restore, whose goal is to give like-minded ex-cons a chance to get back on their feet without slipping back into former habits.

“Just because you’ve changed don’t mean other people have,” said Rafi Peterson, director of Project Restore. “These brothers have to go back into their environment from which they came if they don’t have the circle of brothers, how can they learn to maneuver through it?”

Mitchell Flournoy Jr., 32, concedes he did not maneuver through it well after being released in 2005. Flournoy tried life on the outside without Islam and landed back in prison a little more than a year later for drug-related charges. Reading the Quran, he came across Sura 63, which warns believers about hypocrites who profess faith but in reality steer believers away from God.

Flournoy realized he wanted to leave a legacy of restoration and redemption rather than return to prison.

“Allah opened my eyes, but one man can’t do it alone,” he said.

Re-entry programs for former inmates are few, especially for Muslims. But as more men practice Islam behind bars there are nearly 3,000 Muslims registered with the Illinois Department of Corrections the demand for such programs continues to grow.

Ex-offenders who discover Islam behind bars often end up being the only family member who is Muslim. In addition, mosques already striving to conquer negative stereotypes may hesitate to welcome someone with a criminal past or devote resources to help former inmates.

That can leave them with feelings of estrangement and vulnerable to radical organizations that exploit those feelings, experts say.

Aminah McCloud, a professor of Islamic studies at DePaul University, said that while African American Muslims and the Nation of Islam have offered transitional programs, the challenge is making more of the immigrant Muslim community understand the need for such programs.

“It’s kind of an American thing,” she said. “It comes out of our whole ethos of rehabilitation. You want people to re-enter society as productive persons. Certainly the Muslim community could take the lead in providing some of those services.”

But McCloud said that’s difficult without the support of government and advocacy organizations.

This year, the city of Chicago gave $225,000 to the Inner City Muslim Action Network in exchange for a promise to “green up” four transitional homes in the next two years. The Islamic Society of North America, with help from the Chicago area’s Zakat Foundation, gave $160,000.

Safaa Zarzour, secretary general of the Islamic Society of North America, said the project provided an opportunity for the organization to reach out to inner-city Muslims whose numbers have been growing largely because of African American converts. He speculates that many of those conversions were inspired by the civil rights movement and the introspection that can take place during incarceration.

“It’s a religion that requires a lot of discipline,” Zarzour said. “You have to pray specific five times a day; fast once a year for a whole month; stay away from alcohol and gambling. I can see it being attractive for someone who has been touched by those ills and the lack of discipline.”

Ma’alam Abdullah, coordinator of the Green Re-entry Project, said the environmental twist not only helped the initiative qualify for funding, it gave the participants a greater sense of purpose.

“We’re trying to help them see what’s possible from a consciousness level,” Abdullah said. “That’s really a huge part of what our faith advocates a great sense of consciousness of your environment, your brothers, the very materials you’re considering God does not waste. Some thought needs to be put into every act, everything we do.”

To meet green standards, none of the foreclosed homes will be razed, and crews will salvage as much of the building materials and structure as possible. All lumber will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, guaranteeing the wood comes from a well-managed forest. Solar panels will warm the hot water tank. And a metal roof and special windows will reflect sunlight to keep the home cool. A geothermal heating system will keep the house warm.

The first house should be ready to move into this fall, and the Inner City Muslim Action Network will acquire and renovate three other foreclosed homes in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood over the next two years, network officials said. About half a dozen men chosen from a long waiting list are expected to move into each house as it’s completed.

Though he is grateful for the transitional housing, Flournoy said doing the actual work is also important.

“It’s easy to tell someone to change. But if we don’t have anything for them to do, it’s asking the impossible,” he said.

The decision to be involved in the project was a natural one for Asim Dawkins, 49, who also converted to Islam in prison.

Dawkins, who killed a man more than 30 years ago, has spent more than half of his life behind bars.

He said his time was well spent studying Islam.

“It helped develop me as a man, as a father, as a friend and (build) a relationship with God that I didn’t have before,” Dawkins said. “Islam is not a religion of rush. It’s a religion that obeys the natural order of things, allows you to move at your own pace. Islam still credits you the same credits. It’s a different race.”

Chicago Tribune