Ramadan for Muslim Inmates: Mixing Religious Duty With Prison’s Limits

National News
Typography

NYT, JULY 6, 2016

 

OSSINING, N.Y. — As they heard the beginning of the 8:30 p.m. call to prayer on Tuesday, the Muslim men took their first sips of water of the day, breaking the Ramadan fast for the last time this year.

They passed around apples, chips and juice, their bodies aching for food but their minds reminding them that first, they must pray. The men filed into the white-walled mosque, joining more than 100 others facing east, their arms crossed and their heads bowed.

“Allahu akbar,” the imam called from the front of the two-tiered room.

Some of the men wore knit kufi caps, and almost all were clothed in green uniforms, signifying their status as inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility here in Westchester County. Sing Sing, a maximum-security prison, holds more than 1,600 inmates, including many convicted of crimes like murder and manslaughter.

The prison’s imam, Jon Young, said that 80 percent of the Muslim inmates in Sing Sing had converted to Islam after entering prison.

“Islam has discipline that they didn’t have before,” Mr. Young said. “They have a real sense of brotherhood. They protect each other.”

But being a Muslim behind bars has its complications. Those incarcerated, like Muslims in the general public, may face a lack of understanding, discrimination or indifference. This friction can be heightened during the holy month of Ramadan, when religious obligations require complicated changes to rigid prison schedules.

Across the state, 5,842 inmates, or about 11 percent of the total prison population, are Muslim. During Ramadan, these inmates are entitled by federal law to fulfill their religious obligations, including eating only between sundown and sunrise, showering once a day and praying five times a day.

New York prisons follow a detailed, systemwide directive that requires delivery of Ramadan meals at appropriate times and that dictates other accommodations for those observing the holy month. Sing Sing in particular is known by Muslim inmates in the state as having the best programs pertaining to Islam.

Because Sing Sing has its own mosque and offers daily prayer services and classes on Islam, Dontey Middleton, 32, requested that he be transferred here about two years ago.

“Up north, in other spots, it’s always scrutinized by the police,” Mr. Middleton said of prayer in group settings. “Being down here, we have the liberty to, every day, study our religion and pray.”

But even in states like New York that have detailed provisions for religious accommodations, some inmates in prisons and jails report lapses during Ramadan.

At Auburn Correctional Facility, a number of Muslim inmates complained that when the prison was in a lockdown in 2013, they were denied Ramadan meals and access to communal prayer. At Attica Correctional Facility, an inmate complained that he had been denied showers nine times during Ramadan in 2012, apparently for no reason.

“It does seem to come up every year,” said William Burgess, a senior staff attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Often, these “hiccups,” as Mr. Burgess put it, may occur in smaller jails or as a result of staff turnover.

In 2005, Darryl Holland filed a lawsuit pertaining to his time at Wende Correctional Facility. During Ramadan in 2003, corrections officers instructed Mr. Holland to drink water so they could collect a urine sample. Because he was fasting, he refused to drink and asked to give the sample after sundown instead. For his refusal, he was placed in an isolation cell for 77 days.

After Mr. Holland sued, New York prisons changed their policy in 2012, allowing Muslim prisoners who are fasting to give urine samples after sunset.

Muslim inmates at Sing Sing described less-accommodating experiences at other prisons, some of which do not have Friday prayer services and regular Islamic education classes. Mr. Middleton said at some prisons, he was allowed to take only three showers a week during Ramadan.

Michael Tineo, a 33-year-old inmate at Sing Sing, said that while he was at Elmira Correctional Facility, he was running late for Ramadan dinner in the mess hall one night. He said a corrections officer refused to escort him to the mess hall, telling him: “That’s too bad. Deal with it.”

In a statement in response to the recent lawsuits, Thomas Mailey, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said the department “has been and remains committed to ensuring the free exercise of religion by the inmates housed within each of its facilities.”

At Sing Sing, the Ramadan program and meals are so well organized that even non-Muslims ask to partake, Mr. Tineo said. The prison houses 250 registered Muslims, all of whom are given a meal after sundown and a bag for suhur, a meal eaten before sunrise. Even 60 Muslim inmates in isolation are fed meals after sundown.

Each year, the inmates organize a fund-raiser, selling essential oils to fellow inmates through the commissary. They use half of the revenue to supplement Ramadan meals and to subsidize religious festivals. They also give part of the money to other religious and academic programs at Sing Sing — fulfilling a Ramadan obligation of donating to charity.

 

During an evening class before the breaking of the fast on Tuesday, Mr. Young, the imam, taught a lesson on the prophet Yusuf, or Joseph, who spent many years in prison but came out as an honest man.

“People should know you for your character as a Muslim,” Mr. Young said, urging the members of the class to be honest and forgiving.

He then showed the class a video of thousands of Muslims on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a trip that many inmates dream of someday making.

“You’ve got to give them something to aspire to” after getting out, Mr. Young said. “A lot of these guys haven’t been out of New York.”

Many Muslim inmates at Sing Sing said their families had noticed a change in their behavior since their conversion: They curse less, they pray more, and they have a more positive outlook.

Ivan Seabrooks, 41, has been in prison for about 13 years, and he converted to Islam six years ago. Before his conversion, he never thought he would go back to school. But last year, he earned his associate degree, and he hopes to complete his bachelor’s degree this year.

“Turning Muslim changed my whole perspective,” Mr. Seabrooks said. “I was an angry guy. It teaches you patience.”