Observing Ramadan in Prison

Isabel Beaumont

Approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide fast during Ramadan (IOPG, 2019). Muslims all over the globe will have spent the last month taking part in Ramadan. This is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and it involves a focus on prayer, reading the Qur’an, community, self-reflection, and abstinence from impure thoughts. Muslims will also fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset. The end of the month of Ramadan is celebrated with Zakat, the giving of charitable donations, and a day of feasting, seeing family and friends and the exchange of gifts, called Eid-al Fitr (Muslim Hands, 2022). Muslims only represent 5% of the UK population, so Ramadan may not be widely understood among non-Muslims (ONS, 2018).

However, compared to the general population, Muslims are vastly overrepresented in the Criminal Justice System, making up 16% of the prison population (IOPG, 2019). Common standardised practices to mark Ramadan in prisons include broadcasting an imam over National Prison Radio throughout the month and a Ramadan activity booklet (Takwani, 2021). The activity booklet is provided annually and is comprised of 30 pages of reflections to help guide Muslims throughout the month. In general, the evening meal will be delivered at the same time as those who are not observing Ramadan, but in insulated containers, ready for them to break fast later that evening (Inside Time, 2022).  Finally, prison catering staff ensure thatbreakfast and lunch are combined for their meal before sunrise.

However, the experience of Ramadan can vary significantly from prison to prison. For example, HMIP describe how food delivery protocols are based on conversations between catering staff and imams (RR3 Special Interest Group, 2021). Furthermore, they mention that in prisons with a higher Muslim population, there have been recruitment difficulties, so the number of imams does not always reflect population changes.

Third sector parties have raised concerns about insufficient recognition of the importance of Ramadan in prisons and the poor treatment of Muslims at this time. Maslaha is a charity advocating forthe rights of Muslims, publishing reports on their discrimination within the Criminal Justice System. When it comes to fasting during Ramadan, they highlight accounts of the meals being cold, tampered with, or intercepted and not reaching their intended recipients (Maslaha, 2021b).

 In 2021, during Ramadan, Maslaha released short audio clips and comic strips after interviewing people in prison to highlight their experiences. One man explains in his audio clip that, in his experience, in prisons with a lower Muslim population, insulated boxes containing meals to break the fast after sunset have shown up empty. He claims that the food was taken by those working in the kitchens. This can be difficult to resolve as by the time this is realised, cell lock up has already occurred, so no alternative food is provided. He goes on to highlight the performative nature of the complaints process who often dismiss these issues.

Timekeeping is an essential element for opening and closing fast. One interviewee spoke about the variation of this between prisons. Sometimes alarm clocks are provided, or available to buy from canteen, whereas in other prisons Muslims are reliant on prison staff waking them up to eat before sunrise. There are inconsistencies between prisons and the efforts gone to by individual staff to ensure that those fasting are awake at the right time. He referred to this as a “postcode lottery” (Maslaha, 2021a, para 14). This highlights that the right support is possible, but there should be processes at each prison to ensure that no Muslim is refused the right to observe Ramadan.

A third interviewee described the discrimination he faced during Ramadan. Due to having to wake early to open his fast, he made arrangements with his cleaning work to start later. These arrangements are often made, and most Muslims can be excused from having to be present at breakfast with others in prison. However, this is ultimately up to individual prison staff, and when it came to his shift, these arrangements were revoked, and he was fired for being late. This was followed up with accusations of him having a bad attitude, an all-too-common stereotype heard when discriminatory behaviour is questioned (Maslaha, 2021a).

Important social elements of Ramadan have been put under even more pressure recently, increasing the importance of fasting. Coronavirus continues to disrupt UK prisons in 2022 with many restrictions still in place. This has affected how Ramadan has been observed in prisons. Group activities are reliant on what stage of restrictions individual prisons are in. The different approaches taken by prison governors greatly affects each of these issues (RR3 Special Interest Group, 2021).Ramadan is usually a time spent connecting with family, friends, and the community. The isolation felt from imprisonment is particularly poignant for Muslims during this time. Social visits have for the most part been prohibited, with short video/phone calls taking place instead. Furthermore, being confined to their cells has made the unofficial support systems within the prisons near impossible and meetings arranged by imams have also nearly all stopped (Maslaha, 2021b). With the social elements of Ramadan not being possible in prison at this time, fasting is brought more to the fore.

There needs to be greater recognition of the needs of Muslims in prison when they are observing Ramadan. HMPPS should circulate and enforce more standardised practices, so it is not such a “postcode lottery” (Maslaha, 2021a, para 14) for Muslims. They should provide appropriate training about different religions, so staff are not “learning on the job” (Mohammed & Nickolls, 2021, p.10). Prisons need to start sharing their best practices with each other to ensure observing Ramadan is accessible to all Muslims in prison. This helps to ensure there is a more widespread understanding to reduce this cultural and religious discrimination at this important time for Muslims.

Reference List

Inside Time (2022) Charity Raises Ramadan Concerns. Available at: Charity raises Ramadan concerns – insidetime & insideinformation

Maslaha (2021a) Raising the voices of Muslim People in Prison. Available at: https://www.maslaha.org/post/muslim-people-in-prison-ramadan  

Maslaha (2021b) The Realities of Ramadan in Prison. Available at: https://www.maslaha.org/Project/The-Realities-of-Ramadan-in-Prison

Muslim Hands (2022) What Is Ramadan? Available at: https://muslimhands.org.uk/ramadan/what-is-ramadan

Mohammed, R. & Nickolls, L. (2021) Time to End the Silence. Available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5kq6m7g55sbv91e/Time_To_End_The_Silence_CJ_Report_Maslaha.pdf?dl=0

ONS (2018) Muslim Population in the UK. Available at: Muslim population in the UK – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

RR3 Special Interest Group (2021) Notes from the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) Special Interest Group on Covid-19. Available at: Notes from the Reducing Reoffending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3) Special Interest Group on Covid-19 | Clinks

Takwani, M. (2021) ‘Observing Ramadan in Prison’, Prisoners Abroad, 30 April.  Available at: https://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/blog/observing-ramadan-in-prison

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