Challenges and stigma: Observing Ramadan in a UK prison

Ex-prisoners remember difficulties when fasting as study highlights dangers of system that views Muslims with suspicion.

Ramadan in UK prison
The male Muslim prison population in the UK has doubled in the past 17 years from 5,502 Muslims in 2002 to 13,341 by 2019 [File: Kieran Doherty/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – In 2009, at the age of 18, Suleman was sent to HM Prison Glen Parva in the English midlands.

One of the biggest challenges he faced while observing Ramadan was knowing what time the fast started and ended.

“One thing you don’t have in prisons is a clock in your cell,” he told Al Jazeera.

“You may have a communal one in the association hall. But in prison, a clock is the last thing you want, bearing in mind time goes really slow.”

To begin the fast before dawn, Muslim prisoners were given a cold breakfast pack of cereal, yoghurt, fruit and dates.

At 5pm, the designated dinner time, inmates would collect their warm food.

“They’d always give you food in the flask that’s going to stay warm, that wasn’t supposed to go soggy or mouldy because it sat in your cell for a number of hours.

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“But usually, they would give a really soggy curry and rice in a tub. It’s probably the worst food you could get … If people sent in money from outside, only then could you afford to buy your own food.”

For iftar time, when the fast ends, the prisoners would use EastEnders, a popular British soap opera, as a measure to work out when to start eating.

“We would know what time it would start, what time it would finish. We would use the TV guide to judge what time it was, to open the fast.”

Adam, a British Muslim who also spent time in prison in 2009, said: “I’m not going to lie, the first Ramadan was really hard when I first went in. The prison I was in was 90 percent white. It was harder in juvenile prison than it was in adult.”

While prisoners offered their five daily prayers in cells, congregational prayers on Friday were allowed to take place in the prison chaplaincy.

“Luckily for me, I was in Leicester which is a very multicultural city. Prison officers had more of an understanding of Islam,” said Suleman.

“But in other prisons where it’s not multicultural, where there isn’t a high proportion of Muslim inmates, you don’t have an understanding or comfortability factor when it comes to practising religion in prisons.

“It might be perceived as a form of extremism. People praying in congregations tend to get split up on the basis that there’s too many of them, even though it’s completely normal to pray in congregation.”

The suspicion some Muslim prisoners face is the subject of a new report which underscores a lack of religious understanding in prisons, particularly around Ramadan.

Maslaha, a charity which tackles inequalities within the British Muslim community, said in its April 24 report that the prison system overall did not respect the religious identity of its Muslim inmates. Instead, Muslim inmates’ religiosity was being viewed with unwarranted negativity.

Raheel Mohammed, Maslaha director, told Al Jazeera: “Even the most innocuous action such as growing your beard, praying, reading Arabic in your cell, is suddenly seen as on the road to being radicalised.”

In a foreword for the report, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said the UK prison system’s “ineptness” in recognising the religious needs of Muslims in custody, was rooted in “widespread confusion” about Islamic identity and the “lazy contrast between ‘radical’ and ‘moderate’ Islamic practice”.

The Lammy Review, a report into the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system led by Labour MP David Lammy in 2017, found Muslims were over-represented in the prison system, comprising 15 percent of the total prison population, despite making up 5 percent of the British population.

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After his time in prison, Suleman graduated with a degree in criminology and worked in the criminal justice sector, using his experiences to facilitate focus groups and interviews with inmates, prison officers, academics, and imams.

“When faith is perceived as a risk factor and everyone is looked at through the lens of fear, it may also be because of a lack of cultural understanding or the training of prison officers.

“When I was talking to Muslim prisoners about their experiences of being in prison prior to this report, one inmate said when he wore [an Islamic skull cap], one of the prison officers jokingly remarked to him, ‘What’s that condom you have on your head?’ leading to that prisoner retaliating and being restrained.”

Meanwhile, both Maslaha’s Mohammed and Suleman said they were concerned for the UK’s Muslim prisoners amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of male Muslim prisoners has doubled over the last 17 years from 5,502 Muslims in 2002, to 13,341 by 2019, according to Maslaha.

Mohammed said existing inequalities could deepen as he feared “serious health risks” in prisons where social distancing was not possible.

“What about safeguards if you’re Muslim and fasting, under 23-hour lockdown, and you have underlying health issues?” he said.

Suleman said self-isolation could exacerbate mental health issues.

“Friday congregation prayers are like a support factor for Muslim prisoners. Inmates get to see other prisoners, it’s a time to rejoice.

“A lot of people going through a really miserable time, Jumah (Friday prayer) can be the positive light at the end of the week. Without Jumah, it could lead to self-harm maybe.”

Source: Al Jazeera