Observing Ramadan in prisons challenging, former inmates say

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Capital News Service

LANSING — It’s hard for inmates to observe the holy month of Ramadan in prison due to a lack of cooperation between staff and chaplains, two formerly incarcerated Muslims said. 

Muhammad Abu Bakr Abdullah and Edward Sanders said they faced diffiulties in observing Ramadan behind bars. 

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast, abstaining from food and drink during the day.

“Muslims believe this is the month in which the Quran, the Islamic holy book, was first revealed,” said Mohammad Hassan Khalil, the director of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. 

“The fasting entails no eating, no drinking, so not even a cup of water, and no sexual relations from dawn to sunset,” Khalil said. “If someone is unable to fast, then they are not expected to fast.” 

The Corrections Department was sued in 2018 for not providing Muslims with enough food. A federal jury awarded four inmates punitive damages after they allegedly received as little as 1,000 calories a day for the month. 

The department must provide inmates at least 2,600 calories worth of food daily, according to Daniel Manville, the director of the Michigan State University Civil Rights Clinic. 

Inmates won a court order entitling them to the same calories as regular inmates during Ramadan, Manville said. 

The department said it has processes e to sign inmates up for Ramadan services. 

“We have a well-established practice in place to ensure their dietary needs” are met, said Chris Gautz, a department public information officer. “The Ramadan service will begin with the pre-dawn breakfast on Tuesday, April 13 and will end with a post-sunset meal and snack bag on Wednesday, May 12.” 

“Chaplains have a process at each of the facilities to identify those individuals and to get them on the list,” Gautz said. “The only thing that we run into sometimes is people try to cheat the system and they tell us that they are Muslim.”

“If we see them going to the chow hall three times a day and then expecting their snack bag at the end of the day or the start of the day, there’s a process in place to remove them,” he said 

Abdullah and Sanders said most facilities didn’t accommodate Muslims during Ramadan.

“I don’t think there’s a person that’s in the Department of Corrections that’s Muslim who will tell you that it’s not difficult to practice Islam in there,” Abdullah said. 

Abdullah served 25 years in prison and was released in 2015. 

He said the quality of the food, as well staff attitudes, affect Muslims’willingness and desire to fast.

“I recall a time where everyone went in to go to the mess hall for the breaking of the fast and they were telling us they were no longer going to provide us with hot meals, they were only going to give us cold bags,” Abdullah said. “We were like ‘Wait a minute, you can’t just give us hot meals in the morning and some cold meals throughout the day,’ and so there was a standoff in the chow hall because of that.”

“When we ask for what we need, they tell us we shouldn’t complain — eat some cheese and peanut butter,” he said. 

Sanders said some inmates wouldn’t sign up for the Ramadan service due to the hectic environment in the chow halls. 

At some facilities, “you’ve got guards that really don’t want you to come out. They really feel offended that they have to let you outside your cell to go to the kitchen in the morning,” said Edward Sanders, a paralegal from Detroit. 

Sanders, also known by his Muslim name Barakah, received a life sentence at the age of 17. He was released in 2017 after 42 years. 

Sanders said guards often verbally harassed Muslims during the Ramadan service. 

“While you’re sitting there trying to have your first meal of the day, you’ve got a guard screaming and hollering ‘Hurry up! Hurry up! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ denying you a moment of serenity,” he said. 

“A lot of the guys that are fasting during Ramadan would even refuse to sign up and get on the list,” Sanders said. 

Sanders said guards ticketed Muslims for preparing their evening meal in the kitchen.

Abdullah and Sanders said that, for a time at least, Hiawatha Correctional Facility in Kinross provided a unique Ramadan service and let Muslims congregate for meals and prayer. 

“We were allowed to come out early in the morning. In fact we used our own food,” Sanders said. “As a community, we were allowed to pool our own resources and bring food for each other. That was beautiful because we knew that this was something we had sacrificed and put to the side.” 

Sanders said Muslims in Kinross would eat, make a “congregational prayer and head back to the housing unit before the rest of the prison got up and went over to the regular food service for the regular breakfast.”

But when he later returned to Kinross, the facility had another warden and “the environment was quite different.”

In other prisons, Sanders said “Muslims weren’t even getting a quarter of what you would require in terms of your nutrition, and their response is ‘You’re supposed to be fasting,’ and we try to explain that fasting and starving is not the same thing.”

Sanders said most grievances filed during Ramadan are denied. 

Manville said the state should improve the grievance process so inmates can better report incidents of religious discrimination. 

“The grievance process takes roughly 90 days,” he said. “So say Ramadan started today and I’m a Muslim and they don’t provide me with what I’m supposed to have, I then have to go through the grievance process and I would have completed Ramadan before I could complete the grievance process.” 

Manville expressed frustration in trying to convince prison officials to learn from religious instructors, especially imams.

“They’ve created more problems with their attitude than anything,” he said.