Observing Ramadan: The Practice of Islam in US Prisons

This month, across the United States, Muslim prisoners will rise for their early morning prayers and pre-dawn meal in observance of Ramadan. For the roughly 350,000 Muslim inmates in this country, who began their month-long fast on Sunday (June 5), the rituals of Ramadan are squeezed among the rules and routines of institutional life.

Current estimates state that as much as 15% of inmates in the United States identify as Muslim. Amidst negative cultural sentiments, and rising concerns over high conversion rates to Islam and its potential radicalization behind bars, the argument has always been polarized regarding how to treat those practicing their faith while incarcerated.

A 2014 article from the LA times explains, “What works against Muslim inmates is the politicized nature of how Islam in perceived in this country…Even when it comes to the basic practice of bona fide religious beliefs, there’s always this angle of concern about how dangerous, how political a practice might be.”

The idea that US prisons have become hubs of Islamic extremism and violence has permeated the conversation about freedom of religion in prison. And while the fear of radicalization in US prisons is not entirely unfounded, the majority of followers in prison-as in the rest of the world- are nonviolent, peaceful practitioners. Regardless, these assumptions have resulted in unfair treatment of those practicing Islam in comparison to those of the Jewish or Christian faith.

The freedom to observe Ramadan at all was only won in court fights over the past two decades. In the 1980s, a slew of cases established the right of inmates in many states to grow beards, wear robes, pray at prescribed times, be served alternatives to pork and adopt Muslim names. And it wasn’t until the early 2000’s the Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Muslim prisoner must be given food after sundown during Ramadan. That ruling does not extend nationwide.

Moreover, in 2012, the ACLU began complaining about the treatment of Muslim inmates in various county jails, demanding their religious rituals be more fairly incorporated into prison routines. In lieu of mounting protests, efforts are being made to accommodate religious services for those practicing Islam. For example, in some jails, religious groups now receive halal meals (meat prepared according to Muslim requirements). As for Ramadan, an increasing amount of prisons are working to ensure inmates are fed a pre-dawn meal and that other religious needs are met. That said, practices vary from state to state and, within the same state, from prison to prison.

The hope is that one day, as put simply by inmate Jerlone Barnes, “We [Muslims] will be given the same benefits they give to everyone else practicing their religion.”

As we strive to create religious equality in prisons nationwide, what cannot be contested is that religion, of any form, has played a positive role in prison security and rehabilitation, with an overwhelming majority of state prison chaplains considering religious counseling and other religion-based programming an important aspect of rehabilitating prisoners. In fact, Muslims have played a huge part in shaping the legal system’s treatment of prisoners and the role of religion, generally in prison. They have initiated rehabilitation and reentry programs and fought for reform since the prisoner’s rights movement in the late 1960s.

Although American Prison Data Systems does not attribute itself to any religion or creed, our tablets offer religious texts through its National Corrections Library (NCL) as well as a host of resources that can connect inmates to faith based services offering emotional and spiritual healing.

**Note: Check out how other countries have successfully incorporated Ramadan into prisons like the Wormwood Scrubs facility in England!**

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