Nation of Islam sect allowed in prison

The Associated Press/September 09, 2009

Is the Nation of Gods and Earths/Five Percent a religion or something less than heavenly?

A federal judge in Detroit is recommending the Michigan prison system recognize it as a religion and lift a ban on the group's literature among inmates.

An inmate, Dion Hardaway, said he lost work and school privileges and was designated a security threat until he renounced his membership in the group, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that promotes black empowerment.

"This is the type of substantial burden that Queen Isabella would have understood in 1492," U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Whalen wrote, referring to the expulsion or forced conversion of Jews to Christianity in Spain.

Whalen said prison security is a "compelling state interest," but he found no evidence that Nation of Gods advocates violence.

His Aug. 18 recommendation is on the docket of U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn. The Michigan Department of Corrections considers the group a gang and wants Cohn to reject the report.

"The beliefs of the NGE are philosophical rather than religious. NGE describes itself as a 'way of life,' not a religion," Assistant Attorney General Kevin Himebaugh wrote.

To help its argument, the state turned to G.V. Corbiscello, an investigator with the Monmouth County, N.J., sheriff's office. He was involved in the prosecution of a rapist in Philadelphia who used coded language known by members of the Nation of Gods to try to escape from custody.

"It is this writer's professional appraisal that the Five Percent Nation is essentially a criminal street and prison gang," he said in a report.

But Whalen said Corbiscello addressed the issue only from one angle: law enforcement.

"History is replete with examples of religions that have followers who embrace both the sacred and the profane," the judge wrote.

Corrections Department spokesman Russ Marlan said he didn't know how many Michigan inmates identify themselves with the Nation of Gods.

A website,, promotes spiritual awareness and self-improvement, among other themes - "not social disruptiveness," Whalen said.

He acknowledged that Nation of Gods eschews the term "religion" but said the group is "religious in nature" and deserves the protection of federal law in Michigan prisons.

In South Carolina prisons, the group is considered a security threat and its literature is banned. After a lawsuit, New York state in 2004 set policies for Nation of Gods followers, allowing personal study but banning prisoners from sharing materials with any inmate who is not signed up as a "sincere adherent."

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