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The reality of Ramadan for Muslim people in prison

Ramadan can be a particularly difficult and isolating period for Muslims in prison.

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Second Ramadan under lockdown

This is a guest post by Lauren Nickolls, Senior Project Manager at Maslaha.

This is the second Ramadan for Muslims in prison spent under lockdown conditions. Ramadan is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam. It starts today and will last for 29-30 days. Though usually it should be a joyous time for Muslim people around the world, for those in prison it can be a particularly difficult and isolating period.

Whilst every Muslim person in prison has the right to observe Ramadan, our research, Time to End the Silence, shows that inconsistent provisions, a lack of knowledge about Islam, and outright discrimination creates barriers for Muslims practicing their religion.

It is important for people working in the criminal justice system to be aware of the challenges that Muslims in prison may face this month.

Isolation and loneliness

Ramadan is a time where the isolation and loneliness of prison can feel especially sharp. During Ramadan there is an emphasis on giving to others and togetherness. Meals are often spent with families and friends and many people visit the Mosque more often, spending more time with their local communities.

Short phone calls and video visits (or even in-person ones) can’t ever hope to replace these connections and experiences. Being cut off can be incredibly difficult and lockdown conditions only exacerbate this as the informal support networks between Muslim prisoners that would usually help are cut off to a large extent as well.  

Eid-ul-fitr in particular – which marks the end of Ramadan – is a day of celebration. There is a special morning prayer and the day is typically spent with family and friends and lots of food to celebrate. This year Eid will be on the 12th or 13th May. Usually, the prison chaplaincy would hold the Eid prayer and a congregational meal, but this is not likely to be the case due to Covid-19 restrictions. One Muslim man recounts to us on Eid last year not even being able to have the time to both shower and contact family despite the significance of this day.

As restrictions in the community begin to ease as it will likely make the ongoing restrictions on people in prison at this important time a more difficult pill to swallow.

Fasting

During Ramadan Muslims will fast between daylight hours. That means no food or drink including water is consumed during these hours.

Muslims should be provided with food by the prison outside of the usual mealtimes. Hot food in flasks or boxes should be given to people in the evening for them to eat when the sun sets – a meal known as Iftaari or Iftar. At the same time breakfast packs should be issued for the meal before sunrise called Suhoor.

This sounds a simple enough solution but our engagement with Muslim people in prison has highlighted concerns about the quality and quantity of food provided.

Sometimes it can feel like scraps leftover in the kitchen. Other times the food arrives too early so it’s cold by the time its eaten. We’ve also received accounts of boxes arriving with food missing or even being empty because they’ve been tampered with.

Timekeeping

Timekeeping is an essential element of Ramadan so you know when to begin and end your fast. But like so many things across the prison estate, inconsistency proves to be the problem. Whether alarm clocks are allowed, whether they are provided or available to purchase on canteen sheets, and the price of them varies across the prison estate. Where clocks are available to purchase, not everyone in prison can afford them if they aren’t able to get support from families.

Alternatively, prison officers may assist with waking people so they can eat before sunrise. But this relies on the discretion of individual officers. Our report previously highlighted a case where one prison officer had taken the time to learn why doing this was so important for Muslims and helped, whilst their colleagues decided they did not need to because to them it wasn’t seen as necessary.

Muslims can also be excused from having to wake up at breakfast times when they are fasting especially as they often stay up late praying. However this is another thing down to officer discretion. In an interview with us, one man describes being aggressively confronted in the morning about remaining in bed and being forced to get up despite prior arrangements with other officers. Precedent shows that discretionary decision-making rarely favours Muslims.

Health

This year will be a particularly difficult Ramadan. After prolonged confinement to cells and with Covid-19 cases having risen across the estate, physical as well as mental health has inevitably declined for many people and resilience is lower.

Muslims in prison or their families may have additional concerns about what this could mean for their health or the health of a loved one in prison during Ramadan and the impact of fasting. The added exposure to news dominated by the pandemic can exacerbate fears. Similarly, with the vaccination program ongoing, there may be worries and questions over taking the vaccine and becoming ill while fasting.

It is important to know that it’s okay to seek advice about delaying fasts of abstaining if someone is concerned about their current health or how pre-existing conditions might be impacted during this time. Likewise, medication should be available to fit in with fasting times, but if this is not possible because of lockdown restrictions it is permissible not to fast.

Sharing cells

Sharing cells with a non-Muslim person can be challenging during Ramadan and can risk opening Muslims up to heightened abuse.

Muslims keep a different timetable during Ramadan. There are also special prayers every night and many may choose to pray more than they otherwise might as it is believed that blessings are multiplied at this time. This can lead to conflict if their cellmates feel they are being disturbed. It can also be challenging to focus on praying if their cellmate is doing something distracting or loud.

Now more than ever this could be an issue. As findings by EP:IC Consultants highlight, the pressures of lockdown has tensions running particularly high and people’s patience have been put to the test. Even individuals who usually get on well with their cellmates in ‘normal times’ found the relationship difficult to manage in constant confinement.

Conclusion

All of this has an accumulative impact. It will be daunting for those experiencing their first Ramadan and for those that have been in prison over the last year, coping may feel harder following a year of little reprieve from such a severe lockdown.

Throughout Ramadan we will be releasing audio clips that share the experiences of Muslims in their own words. Keep an eye out for on twitter and our website.

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