April 11, 2007
By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
In February, somebody went into the locked office of Bilal Ansari at Niantic's J.B. Gates Correctional Institution and defaced a picture of him by whiting out his face and writing a racial epithet on it.
Ansari is an African American and a Muslim chaplain.
In March, a co-worker reported to prison authorities the presence of an audio file on Ansari's office computer titled "Jihad or Terrorism." People who have listened to the file - including non-Muslims - say it is a scholarly examination of the vast difference between the two words, but Ansari's computer was confiscated and his office closed off with yellow tape.
Oddly, no one thought to break out the yellow tape when the earlier hate crime - the defacing of Ansari's photo - was reported, though the department is investigating the incident, and they've referred it to the state police, as well.
Ansari, who has filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, says such incidents are only a sampling of what happens to Muslims in the prison system. Other Muslim chaplains - who won't go on the record for fear of the retaliation that appears to have dogged Ansari - say they have been intimidated, stretched too thin to handle important Jumu'ah prayers on Fridays, and forced to worship under circumstances that don't respect the needs of their faith. They say the department needs female Muslim chaplains - there are none - and that Muslim employees and inmates have been verbally harassed.
Ansari says he has been written up for incidents that were blown out of proportion. Recently, he received a performance review of unsatisfactory, which he disputes.
"This is still America," said his attorney, Cynthia R. Jennings of New Haven. "We still have First Amendment rights. The question becomes: When is it going to stop?"
While state Department of Correction officials won't comment on a pending case, Brian Garnett, the department's external affairs director, called the photo defacement "vile" and "bigoted" and said the department, one of the state's most racially diverse, would dismiss anyone found guilty of discrimination.
According to Garnett, 1,541 of the state's 18,973 inmates are Muslim. He said the state employs 68 chaplains, 18 of whom are Muslim, as well as a Muslim imam who serves as a consultant. But the Connecticut Muslim community is diverse, so Reza Mansoor, of the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, has been contacting imams -- faith leaders - from around the state to meet later this week to discuss forming an advisory committee for the department - and perhaps forestall future litigation.
"We really want to resolve this in an amicable way," said Mansoor. "We want to find a process where these issues don't become such a crisis."
The department could also use as a resource the Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary. Several of the state's Muslim chaplains have gone through the program or are enrolled now, said Abdullah Antepli, the program's associate director and a volunteer chaplain himself. He acknowledges that practicing Islam in a prison is challenging, as Muslims emphasize worshiping as a community.
"That's to be considered when you become a chaplain," said Antepli. "These problems should be worked out."
Growing up in his grandfather's Pentecostal church, True Light Deliverance Temple in New Haven, Ansari read a plaque on the Rev. Lonnie S. Talley's wall that said: "We must reach the lost at any cost." Ansari came to Islam - the religion of his father - as a teenager. Serving as a chaplain seemed like a natural progression. Ansari, a student at the seminary's chaplaincy program, began volunteering as a prison chaplain in '97 and joined the staff in 2000.
As much as he loves his job, Ansari has been hospitalized recently because of his work's stress. Still, he remains philosophical.
"The struggle my mother and father went through, I don't have to go through," he said. "This is unfortunate, but if there's still a struggle, I have to keep it going so that my four children don't have to put up with this. That's what keeps me going."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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