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INTERVIEW WITH MUMINA KOWALSKI Muslim Chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, PA
Saima Malik (staff at the ICP): Would you please share some background information about yourself and the work that you are involved in?
Since 1999, I have been the Muslim Chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy, the first woman to work in this capacity in the Pennsylvania state system. Located in the north central sector of the state, this prison is the largest facility for women in Pennsylvania, with approximately 900 females incarcerated at five levels of security, including capital cases.
S.M.: What kind of education and training do you have that enables you to perform in this capacity?
My educational background includes a liberal arts degree and numerous professional training courses with organizations such as the Islamic Foundation of America, Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains’ Association, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Society of North America, Alternatives in Criminal Justice, and Arab World and Islamic Resources. Prior to my job in the prison, I worked for many years as a teacher and later principal of an Islamic weekend school. I have served as the secretary for the Pennsylvania Prison Chaplains’ Association and the vice president of the Islamic Society of Central Pennsylvania
S.M.: What are the specific duties that you are required to perform as the prison Muslim Chaplain?
My contract specifies that I provide chaplaincy service in the following areas:
Conduct formal Muslim religious services, counsel inmates on personal and religious needs, maintain participation records and reports, visit inmates in the infirmary, community hospital, Mental Health Unit, Behavioral Adjustment Unit and Restricted Housing Units, conduct group religious counseling, distribute religious literature, participate in special religious programs, attend religious conferences at the request of the institution, relate in a positive way to other religious perspectives found among the inmate population and perform any other chaplaincy services reasonably expected of a member of that profession and faith.
S.M.: Are there any materials or methods that you find particularly helpful in your teaching?
Presenting myself as a resource person rather then an authority, I was able gain the trust and appreciation of many Muslim inmates when I started. I concentrated on bringing in quality, up-to-date English language materials, but I did not immediately displace the materials and routines already in place. I feel it is critically important to work with the inmate leaders who have established the Muslim program, especially inmates doing life or long sentences, and to act as mediator between inmates. Misconceptions and recalcitrant positions on controversial topics by Muslim inmates can be addressed gradually and through indirect methods. For this I have used the video/audio tapes of leading Muslim scholars in America who understand the American context.
In my conversations and counseling sessions with inmates I try to bring positive advice and encouragement to the women at Muncy, adding to the rehabilitative programs at the institution. The prison experience causes many inmates to turn to religion, and opens the door to ‘come back’ to their faith or learn about a new faith. I have prepared beginner’s packets of information, containing streamlined information on Islam in clear modern English and geared for the prison environment. Topics such as taking shahada, how to pray, participating in Ramadan, obtaining permission to wear hijab, and how to attend Jumu’ah are some of the materials I have prepared specifically for the institution. These I hand out to inmates when they come in to see me for the first time.
It is important to stock the Muslim library with literature that is broad, normative and well translated or written for English-speakers. Inmates take a great deal of their information on Islam from books and pamphlets, so it is wise to gradually weed out overly complicated or divisive, sectarian books and pamphlets.
S.M.: What would you say are the major challenges and rewards that you encounter in your work?
Correctional institutions within the state of Pennsylvania vary in their policies and procedures governing the practice of religion, at the county, state and federal levels. This factor, along with the history of Islam in American prisons, often clouds the vision of clear educational objectives. The Muslim Chaplain also impacts his/her own program in terms of materials, attitudes and styles. From my experiences in Pennsylvania, I think Muslim chaplains would benefit from a general model of an appropriate Muslim educational program in correctional facilities.
Lack of Muslim volunteers in prison programs is another area where we need improvement. Creating viable models of prison outreach and identifying Muslim communities that could incorporate these programs would serve inmates, help prison chaplaincy programs and connect outside communities to meaningful social activism.
Muslims suited to work in prison chaplaincy are those committed to serving and educating in a multifaith environment and who understand the role of prison chaplain as spiritual advisor, role model and advocate. I have learned that the challenges in this field are many, but the power of positive influence in teaching the transforming concepts and pillars of Islam, gives back genuine rewards. I see the small but significant changes that take place in a woman’s perception of herself and her responsibility to others when she has changed through the spiritual teachings of Islam. This rekindles my personal conviction as a Muslim and inspires me to work for improvement in my own practice and in how I present Islam to others.
The opportunity to teach the true peaceful nature of Islam to non-Muslims is another benefit of this job. At the request of the Drug and Alcohol unit I have spoken on various issues, notably the events of 9/11, the month of Ramadan and Hajj. Non-Muslim inmates listened to my perspective and asked pressing questions, which staff later related had a positive effect on the group as well as helping staff manage individuals with serious disruptive issues.
S.M.: What would you say to others considering prison Chaplaincy as a profession?
Islam in American prisons is a significant arena and a vital opportunity for Muslims to participate in the important discourse that religion plays in American institutions. If we can construct successful educational and service programs for Muslim inmates we will be performing a great service to both incarcerated Muslims in particular and to our society in general. Muslim Chaplains in prisons will, by the grace of Allah, be able to contribute to the “greater good” and bring hope and help to an eager and growing segment of the American population.
S.M.: Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.
What is a Chaplain
A chaplain is a professional who offers spiritual advice and care in a specific institutional context, such as a military unit or a college campus, hospital or prison. Although chaplains often provide religious services for members of their own faith communities, the main role of a chaplain is to facilitate or accommodate the religious needs of all individuals in the institution in which he or she is working.
Chaplains often serve as experts on ethics to their colleagues and employers, providing insight to such diverse issues as organ transplantation, just-warfare, and public policy. Professional chaplains do not displace local religious leaders, but fill the special requirements involved in intense institutional environments.
Thus, a Muslim chaplain is not necessarily an "Imam," although an Imam may work as a chaplain. There is a need for both male and female Muslim chaplains. For example, female Muslim students on college campuses or hospitalized Muslim women may feel more comfortable with a Muslim woman chaplain.
How do I become a chaplain
See our FAQ section for more about our process.