MICHIGAN CITY | Renzee Standberry is a leader, mentor and brother. He's also a devout Muslim serving a 30-year sentence at Indiana State Prison.
No one would have used the word devout to describe him when he was convicted of rape at age 24.
Today, Standberry, 41, formerly of Indianapolis, serves as the elected leader of the largest Muslim group of inmates in the state.
"This place, as bad as it is, gives us the opportunity to perfect our faith," he said.
Standberry was chosen by the other inmates to lead Friday prayer sessions. Shahid Iqbal is one of more than 80 inmates who regularly engages in Standberry's carefully crafted sermons.
"Most people can relate to him," Iqbal said. "He's a good leader."
ISP houses a community of 170 inmates who identify as practicing Islam. More than 19 percent of the state's 877 Muslim inmates are housed at ISP, according to the Indiana Department of Correction.
About 7.6 percent of the prison's total population identify themselves as Muslim to officials, up from 5.7 percent in 2005.
And throughout the prison, which houses more than 2,200 inmates, respect and understanding, as well as a curiosity from the general population, are the forces that cause the religion to flourish behind bars, Standberry said.
The religion caught Standberry's attention when he began reading about Islam at the start of his lengthy sentence at the Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton, Ind. His curiosity was piqued as he began reading profusely, diving into the religion.
"I could have been angry," he said. "Or I could do something to better myself."
Now, he's a leader. He encourages others to find meaning in their own confined lives by making himself available to answer the questions of others.
Some inmates, like Standberry, take an interest in the message of Islam.
Others find refuge in settling with the group of peacemakers in a facility filled with violent-offender cliques. Muslim inmates who make a declaration to live as a Muslim will be looked after, Iqbal said.
"We make sure they have food and hygiene, the necessities, if they cannot afford (to buy it from commissary) themselves," he said.
Iqbal, 54, formerly of Mooresville, came to the prison system already proclaiming the Islamic faith. He was born and reared in Pakistan as a Muslim. However, he admits once he came to the United States in 1973 and began working as a truck driver, he wasn't enthralled by his religion.
"I was Muslim in the name and some aspects of it," he said. "I didn't eat pork, I prayed every now and then and sometimes I fasted. But I wasn't committed."
Then he killed his wife in 2002. And after spending nine years in a penitentiary, he believes he's a better man, thanks to his faith.
He prays five times a day, whether he's alone in a cell or with the congregation on Friday. He refuses pork and even in prison he must shy away from what the religion deems as toxic behaviors such as gambling and sex. He said he's reformed his life to become a better Muslim.
Religious practices compromised in prison
But practicing the religion behind bars isn't easy, he said. Although he's away from the temptations of an outside world, many things he's forced to deal with are against the religion's beliefs.
Muslim men are prohibited from being nude in front of other men, which poses a problem for those who are housed in community cell blocks. Iqbal showers with his boxers on when he isn't given enough time or the opportunity to shower alone, he said.
Eating correctly is also an ongoing problem for Muslim inmates at ISP, Iqbal and Standberry said. Most days, the Muslim inmates are provided with vegan meals instead of Halal food despite numerous complaints filed with the prison's administration, Standberry said.
A Halal diet doesn't prohibit eating meat, but it gives strict guidelines about how meat can be slaughtered.
So on many days, Muslim inmates have no other option than to buy food from the commissary or go without, Iqbal said.
Commissary offers several Halal products, and the brothers often share with one another. A small pouch of tuna fish costs $1.36, quite pricey for an inmate who works for the prison and makes less than $16 a month, Iqbal said.
"My family is feeding me," he said. "They send me money, and I buy food from commissary."
Despite the gripes, prison officials believe ISP's program for Muslim inmates is impressive.
Under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, state prisons are required to allow accommodations for inmates to practice religion.
County jails and private prisons also are required to adhere to religious exceptions within reason and as long as those requests don't pose a security threat, said Rashanda Carroll, executive director of re-entry and diversion programs at Cook County Jail.
David Link oversees religious and community activities for Indiana's northern correctional facilities and said safety is usually what puts restrictions on religious activities in most facilities.
But even though they are restricted, the state still tries to do as much as possible, he said. Providing access to religious beads and oils is something extra ISP does that isn't required by law.
Positive force in prisoners' lives
Link, who works as chaplain for the Muslims and other religious groups in ISP, said he's seen many inmates change their attitudes when delving into religion.
"This is true of any religion," he said. "As they get deeper involved in their spiritual life, they become very different people."
Iqbal attested to the fact that religion changed his life. Sometimes he becomes so preoccupied with his thoughts he forgets he's even in prison.
"I look up going to chow, and I see the walls," Iqbal said. "I forget there's a wall sometimes when I'm thinkin' and prayin'. But those walls don't define me. It doesn't change me. I changed me. My faith changed me."