Interview with Victoria Trull of the ICT’s Prison Program

Victoria Trull, courtesy of the ICT

By Amer Taleb

Victoria Trull heads the Islamic Center of Tucson’s Prison Program. She’s also an immigration and criminal law attorney.

Give me an overview of the Prison Program?

There are two major parts to it. Number one is providing religious services to Muslim inmates across Arizona, it means a lot to them because so many have never had contact with a Muslim outside of prison. The 2nd part deals with helping them integrate into the Muslim community upon leaving prison.

What are the common fears of a prisoner?

Violence. It’s a horrible reality and they deal with an unbelievable amount of stress daily. Also, a lot of these guys are serving very long sentences, they’re separated from their families and when they do get out, it’s hard to live a normal life.

The Department of Corrections is punitive, not rehabilitative. So when you’ve served your time, they leave you on the side of the road and all they say is, “You’re done. Bye.”

What are the additional challenges prisoners face for being Muslim?

One prisoner wrote us saying that the prison is too dirty for him to pray in. So he gets on the ground, grabs something to clean with and excessively scrubs the area he wants to pray on. They also have a lot questions, but no one to answer them. One man asked us in his letter, “I’m Hispanic, can I be Muslim?” They just don’t know. Ramadan is another big challenge for them because many times a prison won’t accommodate them by letting them eat when they need to.

What do the prisoners ask for in their letters?

Religious advice or materials. A lot of times they just want to correspond with another Muslim. Their family relationships are already strained because they’re in prison. Add on top of that the fact that they’ve converted to Islam, and it can severely further that rift.

And Qurans. They ask a lot for Qurans.

How hard is it to get a Quran?

Very. If we just send it to them personally, without making them pay for it, the Quran will get confiscated. One of our main goals is to get more Qurans into the prison libraries and into the hands of chaplains, it’ll make accessing them much easier. Based on the letters we get asking for Qurans, I’m assuming not many masjids (mosques) around Arizona are sending them.

How do you help them once they’ve left prison?

Many have no identification, money or place to go. No family or friends, and they have a felony on their record. We have a few mentors to help them get accustomed and make a connection to the community. Hopefully it prevents a relapse.

How many prisoners do you work with?

60-75 since I got involved in the summer of 2011. Some will write us weekly, and others we only hear from once. Arizona is a prison state. The last number I was given was from November 2010, it said about 2,000 prisoners were registered as Muslims in the state.

Who’s a typical Muslim prisoner?

The majority of them are African American, and Islam is one of the fastest growing religions within the Arizona prison system. They have a huge need. Unfortunately, I was told that the Arizona Department of Corrections is not getting the assistance it needs from local mosques. A lot of the Muslim prisoners just sit in their cells all day, stuck wondering why their community forgot them.

How welcoming has Tucson’s Muslim community been to ex-prisoners?

Historically, the community has not been welcoming. Most ex-prisoners that have stuck around to tell me about it, say they don’t feel welcome at all. That’s why we’re trying to get volunteers to serve as mentors to help them get acclimated and feel like there’s something here for them.

What’s the cause of the unwelcome feelings?

I can only speculate. It could be because of racial bias’, cultural divides or the stigma of being an ex-felon.

How do you convince people to get to know an ex-prisoner and give them a second chance?

I tell them that this person is coming in saying “I’ve come to Islam, I’m a new person.” They need to be judged based on the responsibility they take for their past actions as well as their future intentions.

Let’s look at the Prophet Yusef. He was accused of rape, but would anyone of us say “We don’t want to be around him”? No. We can’t judge based solely on the past. If someone decides they want to be a Muslim and they come to the masjid and take the effort to be a better person, and perhaps give back to the community, like advising the youth not to repeat their mistakes, then Alhamdu Lilah (Thank God).

How can people help the Prison Program?

Everything from donating a book to money helps out a lot. Volunteering once a month would be huge. If not, we still appreciate the moral support. Just remember that every little bit helps, writing especially.

We’ll send the leader of a unit a copy of the Tucson Minaret, it’ll get passed around the entire unit and they’ll write back telling us what they thought of it. We get a lot of feedback.

Anything else you’d like to tell the Tucson Muslim community?

Please contact me if you have any questions. There’s a huge need and it’s our duty as a community to help other Muslims and people searching for Islam to offer them our support. These people are very needy. We don’t want them to relapse as they’re transitioning to Islam because they felt that the Muslim community rejected them. They’re not just a bunch of thugs and bad people.

Appreciate the fact that they’re reaching out to Allah and to us. We’re all human beings, and in an instant, you could be in the same position they’re trying so hard to escape.