As a Muslim prisoner in the US, I worry I will be cremated when I die

I will likely die in prison, but before I do, myself and other prisoners want a process to ensure Islamic burial rites.

An illustration of a person sitting in a cot in a cell with a calendar on the wall with the dates crossed out and a prayer mat below it.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
Correction23 Nov 2023
This article originally carried the name Gregory Williams. The surname was incorrect. It is Wilson. We apologise for the error.

This essay was published in partnership with the Prison Journalism Project, which publishes independent journalism by jailed writers and others affected by imprisonment. 

On February 8, 2022, about an hour before the 6.30am morning count, an announcement rang out over the loudspeakers at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP). It was an emergency code, a “Code 53,” indicating a medical situation.

Located in Trenton, NJSP is the state’s only maximum security prison for men. Most are serving long sentences, many for life. Before New Jersey abolished capital punishment in 2007, NJSP was home to the state’s death row, hence its nickname, “The Last Stop”. The prison today consists of three large compounds — West, North and South — and houses about 1,300 prisoners. Approximately 400 are Muslim. Except for a few dozen, the majority are converts.

It was cold that morning when the announcement rang through the PA system in 2-Right, one of nine housing units in the West Compound, a Civil War-era military complex later converted to serve its current purpose.

I had just gotten up to clean the floor of my South Compound cell — a single-person, 8 by 7-foot (2.4 by 2.1-metre) cage — before performing morning prayers. A long metal table runs across the length of one wall of my cell; adjoined to it are a stainless steel sink and toilet. The light grey walls are bare except for an Islamic prayer calendar, a timetable that I follow every day.

I work for the prison’s chaplaincy department and know that of the nearly 120 men who reside on 2-Right, more than two dozen of them are from our Islamic congregation, which is among the largest in the US prison system.

I immediately began to pray. Over the years, I developed a habit of praying whenever emergency codes were called out. They had become common in those days. The COVID-19 pandemic was still raging, particularly in prisons where the virus has killed thousands of people. Because of the heightened atmosphere of fear of death during the pandemic, many Muslims at NJSP had begun to feel intense anxiety about our final rites, and what would happen to our bodies if we died. Fuelling this unease was the knowledge that some imprisoned men who died at NJSP had been cremated against their religious beliefs.

An illustration of a man with an ice bag
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Losing a brother

I had already lost one friend to the virus, so every time I heard a medical code, I braced for bad news.

This time was no different.

“Yo, Tariq, it was Mujahid on the code this morning,” shouted one of the longtime prisoners from my housing unit who worked on the inside sanitation detail as he returned from a rubbish run.

Confirmation of the news came from another prisoner, a fellow Muslim who worked on the ice detail hauling and filling bags of ice for styrofoam coolers, which prisoners can buy and use to refrigerate food and drinks. Our brother, Gregory Wilson, who went by the name Mujahid after converting to Islam, had died.

I first met Mujahid at about the time of my arrival at NJSP in August 2005, three years after I was arrested. I was 28 years old when I arrived, and had known him for the better part of two decades. Mujahid had been in prison for more than 40 years. He was an active, beloved senior member of our Muslim prison congregation. He was one of the institution’s oldest paralegals, or what some call a “jailhouse lawyer”, an imprisoned person, usually self-taught, who supports fellow prisoners in various legal matters. He was a healthy, active, slender Black man known for both his legal work and handball game. He was 67 when he died.

I learned the details of what happened later that morning in the North Compound Chapel from Martin “Poncho” Robles and Samuel who lived in Mujahid’s housing unit. The chapel serves prisoners of all religions and I work there as a clerk, assisting with religious services, which includes putting together a monthly roster of different activities and providing prisoners with reading material, among other tasks.

The chapel is located at the junction of the North and the West compounds, and along a corridor leading to the prison gymnasium and the recreation yard. As a result, it is a high-traffic area, and people often stop by the chapel to exchange or discuss news. A death inside NJSP is big news, and because of the continued spread of COVID-19, the prison was seemingly always abuzz with conversation about someone getting sick, being hospitalised or dying.

When Poncho and Samuel, who asked that only his first name be used in this article, came by, I was sitting with Sheikh Jamal El-Chebli, supervisor of NJSP’s chaplaincy department and an employee of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC), the government agency responsible for the state prison system. Also present was Robert “Rafique” Rose, my fellow chaplaincy clerk and close friend. Rose, a founding member of our congregation, is a well-respected septuagenarian elder and known inside as “Sheikh Rafique”. (The term “sheikh” is an Arabic honorific that can be used to refer to elders.) Tall and lively, he has served more than 40 years of a 75-year prison sentence.

Things turned quickly

The day before Mujahid passed away, Poncho and Samuel told us he had been having difficulty breathing. One of his legs, the two reported, had swollen up the previous day, prompting a visit to the prison medical department. Later, Mujahid relayed to Poncho and Samuel that he had felt dismissed by the medical personnel and not taken seriously.

The next morning, at approximately 5:10am, a guard conducted a regular prisoner count. Poncho, whose cell was located close to Mujahid’s, heard him acknowledge the guard.

But then things quickly turned. At 5:32am, Poncho said, the nurse delivering morning medications to prisoners in the housing unit found Mujahid unresponsive. The officer escorting the nurse immediately called for the medical code. Soon, medical staff arrived and pulled Mujahid’s body out of his cell, attempting to resuscitate him for what Poncho called “a good half hour”.

“You could see his lifeless body on the cold floor,” Poncho said. Some men in the unit grew agitated – some were murmuring while others yelled angrily. Unable to revive Mujahid, prison officers waited for the coroners to arrive. Poncho said he tried to hand the officers a sheet to cover his body but they did not take it. In my experience, prison staff are often reluctant to touch a body for fear of becoming entangled in the investigation that follows a death. Eventually, the guards brought a standing screen to shield him from view.

His body lay there for about seven hours before the coroner finally pronounced Mujahid dead, Poncho explained. At that point, Mujahid’s “body was placed in a black body bag and dragged away.” (I have not been able to confirm the official cause of death.)

The news of Mujahid’s death hit those of us who knew him hard. Poncho said he’s been “messed up” ever since he saw his friend’s lifeless body lying unattended for so long.

Upon learning what had happened, Sheikh El-Chebli, Sheikh Rafique and I looked at one other and recited a verse from the Quran often invoked in times of calamity or death: Inna l’illah wa inna ilayhi rajioun. (Truly, to God we belong and truly to Him we return.)

After they left, we talked about Mujahid, his service to the community and his generous nature. In prison, such moments are cherished. They briefly ease the stifling feeling of imprisonment and isolation which burdens us all. In shared grief, we feel held by our community and prison family.

But we soon started to worry about Mujahid’s burial and final rites. It was a surreal conversation; over the years, we had often spoken with Mujahid about the subject. Mujahid had always tried to use his legal expertise to improve the quality of life for our congregation, and in particular, had worked to secure final rites for imprisoned Muslims.

Now, it seemed, his worst fears – not receiving those rites – might come to pass.

An illustration of someone standing and talking to a round table full of people.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Burial and final rites

Islamic beliefs dictate that a Muslim cannot be cremated; it is considered haram, a forbidden act. A Muslim must be buried after a ritual bath called ghusl and the covering of the body with two white sheets or towels, known as kafan. A janazah, or funeral, is performed before burial.

For Muslims, the last rites are a final farewell and religious act carried out according to sincerely held beliefs in life after death, the day of judgement and heaven and hell. The burial procedures are therefore of vital religious importance.

During my imprisonment, I have known of Muslim prisoners who have died without a family willing or able to claim their bodies. In some cases, these men were buried with the help of Islamic communities outside, including the Islamic Society of Central Jersey (ISCJ).

But at present, there does not appear to be a clear prison-facilitated process in place for prisoners to influence what happens to their bodies after they die.

The fact that so many Muslims inside are converts complicates matters. Arranging final rites and legally establishing one’s burial preferences typically require buy-in from family members, who often don’t accept their loved one’s decision to convert. In such a situation, the only way to override the wishes of the immediate next of kin is to obtain what the state of New Jersey calls a “funeral agent”. This person is designated by the prisoner before death to handle burial decisions. But the process for attaining a funeral agent is not straightforward, and one is only useful insofar that a decedent, or his funeral agent, can afford the costs associated with burials — a tall order for many imprisoned people.

When it comes to our burial rites, we are confronted with a black hole. We are not given the information we need about the process of securing those rites, nor do we know if there is a proper way for imprisoned Muslims in New Jersey – many serving extremely long sentences – to ensure our burial wishes are carried out. Without the agency as Muslim prisoners to elect our burial preferences, we fear being cremated against our religious beliefs.

Fighting for a mechanism

The New Jersey Administrative Code contains the rules governing how state laws are implemented. According to the section on the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies of prisoners: “An unclaimed body shall be cremated where it is reasonably believed that it would not violate the religious tenets of the deceased inmate.”

Mujahid and other Muslim prisoners including myself have tried to petition for and establish a mechanism within NJDOC to ensure Islamic last rites for Muslim prisoners. These efforts include complaints submitted through a formal channel for prisoners. Mujahid showed me letters he mailed to organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations and pro-bono lawyers requesting support, but no one responded. Before he died, he had also pursued a religious discrimination lawsuit.

Prisoners have also petitioned to be able to submit a final legal will recording their wishes to be buried according to Islamic doctrine.

Being able to choose is crucial. Without such a mechanism, decisions about what happens to the body after death may fall to an unsympathetic family member or the state. NJSP authorities typically rely on a prisoner’s emergency contact form to determine who is contacted first about a death and what to do with the body. That person may refuse or be unable to claim a body due to the financial burden, religious disagreements or any number of other reasons. Sometimes, they are no longer alive.

Over the years, prison chaplains have explained to me what they understand happens to the body of a deceased prisoner. Typically, the body is kept in cold storage, usually by the county’s medical examiner officer. It is considered unclaimed if no funeral executor or family member is identified and contacted.

At this point, inevitably, we are forced to ask: What then will happen to the body? All we know is that the state will decide.

This is the question many Muslim prisoners asked after Mujahid passed away, as we worried whether a family member would claim his body. It’s also one I posed to Victor Lee, NJDOC’s religious coordinator, when he visited the facility in 2022. He declined to comment.

Without a specific procedure to elect and guarantee our burial preferences, many of us do not know what will happen to us when we die.

An illustration of a man standing in the back with someone writing something down on a table in front of them.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Last-ditch requests

In my time at NJSP, at least three Muslims have been cremated instead of being properly buried. Their names are Rahim, Alim, and Talib. A fourth Muslim, Abdullah, was buried by his family as a Christian. These are the names the men took on after converting to Islam.

I could not confirm the exact dates of each death. Even years were difficult to track down. My memory, fellow prisoners, and other people who knew the men got me only this far: Abdullah died between 2006 and 2007; Rahim between 2011 and 2014; Talib between 2019 and 2021. Alim died in 2020. It is hard to describe to people on the outside the way time warps in prison, how the days, months and years blend together in a haze. I regret the lack of precision. These men were my brothers, and I wish I could tell you when exactly they died.

In the cases of Talib and Abdullah, both had family members who refused to honour their burial preferences. For Alim, his family could not afford burial, according to a fellow prisoner who knew the family. (A typical Muslim burial can cost about $6,000.) I have not been able to find anything more about the circumstances around Rahim’s cremation.

I knew each of these men in some way or another and learned of their cremations through both close acquaintances and past and current prison chaplains. All were members of our congregation. I would see them regularly during Friday prayers and at religious classes and events. Abdullah was a light-skinned man with thinning hair who had the look of a dishevelled mathematics professor and spoke in a precise, calculated way. He was a brilliant paralegal and considered by all to be a wise and caring man. Rahim, friendly and outgoing, loved to play cards and board games. Talib had a silver beard and a soft, quiet demeanour. A longtime food services worker, he loved to cook. Alim was a paralegal and a prison mentor. I had known him since arriving at NJSP and he was a dear friend of mine.

Both Talib and Alim had submitted self-made wills to various prison departments declaring their burial preferences. Muslim prisoners here often resort to creating a generic document with paralegals which resembles a final will. Some people have even had copies of these documents notarised by notary personnel arranged by the prison and accepted by various prison departments. (I have seen this happen, and I helped Talib fill his out.) For many prisoners, these are a last-ditch attempt to secure some clarity on their rites. It is not clear what legal significance these documents carry, or whether or how they were consulted after the deaths of Talib and Alim.

NJDOC did not respond to questions provided by Al Jazeera and the Prison Journalism Project.

Death by imprisonment

The anxiety about last rites stems largely from the fact that dying in prison in the state of New Jersey will or could be a reality for many prisoners, including myself.

The state has one of the harshest sentencing schemes in the country and some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. According to a 2022 report by the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, Black people account for 61 percent of the prison population, and only 13 percent of the state population.

The report confirms what I have seen with my own eyes. On the day I arrived at NJSP, I remember stepping into the mess hall where we eat and catching my first glimpse of the rows upon rows of metal tables, each table with four stainless steel stools melded to it. They were overwhelmingly occupied by Black and Latino people. The white people I saw could be counted on one hand. That remains the same today.

Prior to the abolishment of the death penalty in New Jersey, I was one of the last criminal defendants tried for capital punishment in the state. After the jury declined the death penalty, I received a punishment of 150 years for a double homicide, for which I maintain my innocence. That effectively sentenced me to death by incarceration. The average life expectancy of a New Jersey man is about 80 years. At 25 years of age with no prior run-ins with the law, I was given a sentence that would see me imprisoned for 70 years beyond the state’s average life expectancy. With one of the longest sentences in this state prison system, the prospect of death behind bars is a genuine concern for me.

Unlike others inside, I am fortunate to have a loving family. I am a single man with no children, but I am blessed with loving parents, a brother and sister-in-law and their two beautiful children. I also have a few other relatives and loyal friends who have supported me during my imprisonment. This support is invaluable both emotionally and financially.

Although I have kept a steady job for about 17 years, it would be extremely hard to survive without my loved ones. My meagre prison wages cannot even cover my telephone fees. And there is no guarantee that my loved ones will be there when I meet my end. Being away for a lifetime alienates prisoners like me from new members of the family who have no connection to those of us serving life sentences. Another possibility is that even if my family is around, there is no guarantee that they will be able to afford my burial costs.

If there was a clear process to state my burial wishes, I could start now to try and make my own arrangements.

‘I don’t want to be burned’

The issue of final rites remains a constant source of anxiety for many Muslims at NJSP.

During our many conversations at work in the chapel, Sheikh Rafique has often expressed concern about this issue.

“Many older Muslim brothers are worried about getting buried since most of their families have passed away and living relatives don’t even know them. The NJDOC needs to make this process a priority,” Sheikh Rafique told me shortly after Mujahid died.

Sheikh Rafique’s 90-year-old mother had passed away not too long before that, in late December of 2021. He was heartbroken. For years, she had visited her son almost every Saturday — travelling on two trains from Newark, where she lived, to the prison in Trenton  — until her health started to flag in her 80s. Sheikh Rafique told me he felt blessed to have a loving family; even his siblings’ children knew and loved him. He wasn’t too worried about them taking care of him when the time came, but he didn’t want to be a burden to anyone in his family when he left. Like other Muslims at NJSP, he wished he had a way to make his own burial arrangements with an outside Islamic organisation or funeral parlour.

Marko “Abdul Mu’izz” Bey, another fellow Muslim prisoner, came to see our prison chaplain Sheikh El-Chebli and Sheikh Rafique for a counselling session a few days after the death of Mujahid. Bey, who is in his mid-50s, had spent decades on death row before the death penalty was banned, and seems to have resigned himself to dying in prison. When he visited the chapel, his mother had recently passed away, and he was anxious to do something to secure his own final rites. “Man, they need to figure this janazah stuff out, I don’t want to be burned, brother,” he confided.

Another Muslim prisoner, who is serving a life sentence and asked to remain anonymous, is scared something similar could happen to him. “My family ostracised me for converting, and now I’m worried that when I pass away they will either refuse to let me be buried as a Muslim or will refuse to claim my body and I will be burned,” he confided. He had come to submit a self-made will to the chaplaincy department a few weeks after the death and cremation of Alim in 2020.

An illustration of tombstones
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

A Muslim burial

In the end, our prison chaplain Sheikh El-Chebli intervened to advocate for Mujahid’s burial rites. This is not typically part of the job description.

The person on the emergency contact form did not accept Mujahid’s body, but Sheikh El-Chebli successfully located his brother, his next of kin, who is a practising Muslim in Philadelphia. He accepted Mujahid’s body.

After Mujahid’s death, our community mourned. Many people came to the chapel to speak about him and the support he had provided us all over the years. It was easy, for a moment, to imagine us existing on the outside, as though we were visiting Mujahid’s home to pay him the respects he so dearly deserved.

Nearly one month after Mujahid died, Sheikh El-Chebli relayed to Sheikh Rafique and myself that Mujahid had been buried as a Muslim. We were overjoyed. “Alhamdulillah!” we cried, turning to each other.

Mujahid’s case turned out the best it could thanks to various individual efforts. But there remains no guarantee that we won’t have to endure a similar trauma next time a Muslim brother dies. When that happens, our brother and our community may not be so fortunate.

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Source: Al Jazeera