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During Ramadan, I spend my days praying, studying, and working on my own projects, usually poetry and stories. My studies and prayers remind me that 30 days of fasting is a small thing compared to the blessings from Allah, subhana wa ta’allah azza wa jalla (may He be praised and exalted, the Mighty and Majestic), I receive each and every day. 

I practice fasting during the Holy Month, but I do not do so with the Islamic community here at San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) because I do not agree with how the leadership here discriminates against other schools of thought. That is a personal thing for me. 

The first four or five days of fasting are rough, especially because I can’t drink water, which I usually consume a lot of. Once the routine of eating starts, it becomes easier to fast.

Q: How do prison administrators prepare for Ramadan in prison?

As far as I know, all San Quentin State Prison does is have the incarcerated kitchen workers prepare food for us in hot carts for later consumption, provide extra bag lunches, and make space available for the Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan so the imams can celebrate and eat with us. 

Q: Have you asked for certain things and been denied?

All food for our feasts is provided by incarcerated Muslims who are able to donate items. San Quentin does not provide food for our feasts, but they do allow the food to be prepared here. When I was still part of the Islamic community here, we had lamb, which was very good. It is my understanding that feasts now comprise chicken with all the trimmings. Sometimes feasts are late or canceled for security reasons. Most recently, it was because of COVID-19.

Q: What kind of support do you want from your prison or do you think they should provide?

I believe this prison should continue to provide the Islamic musalla (separate congregational area) for Ramadan taleem (instruction) sessions, and should prepare food separately to keep food halal. I know some of the Muslims here are concerned about cross-contamination, but San Quentin does not provide separate cooking for halal food, even during Ramadan. Their version of this is providing bag lunches as suhoors, the early morning meals we take before we start our fast. 

Q: How has COVID-19 affected the way Ramadan is practiced?

Currently, we are quarantined away from each other, and I do not know how long this will last. The food is brought to the units during evening chow time, which is around 5 p.m. It is distributed to those who have attended Jummah prayers.

Q: Has the prison administration been able to provide the support you need to observe Ramadan safely?

Yes, because there is no exposure to each other. Since there are no groups, and masks are mandatory, we are safer.

Q: Has the way you practice Ramadan changed compared to before the pandemic?

I have practiced Ramadan the same way for about eight years now. I get my lunch, fast until sundown, then eat whatever foods I have in my cell after Maghrib prayer. Others have experienced the loss of Ramadan classes and feasts because the pandemic has kept people separated.

Q: If the head chaplain isn’t Muslim, how does that affect Islamic religious services, especially Ramadan?

The imam has made sure that Ramadan is protected here at San Quentin during the pandemic. As far as I know, the incarcerated kitchen workers here prepare food for us in hot carts for later consumption, provide extra bag lunches, and make space available for the Eid al-Fitr celebration at the end of Ramadan. 

Q: How are foods served in prisons during Ramadan?

The trays served in hot carts are usually the dinner of the day, as well as suhoors that typically include cereal in a paper bag, two hard boiled eggs, coffee packets, juice and milk. Sometimes these bags have coffee cake. Each styrofoam tray is served in the units with a lunch and the suhoor. These items are distributed at dinner time, even if the sun is up. 

Q: How has hazardous jobs like being a firefighter during wildfire season in California affected your health while fasting and do prison administrators accomodate you while you’re fasting?

When I was in a fire camp, working as an incarcerated firefighter during my first prison term from 2001 to about 2004, there was no accommodation for Ramadan. Pork was being served, and it was up to Muslims in fire camp to handle their own Ramadan needs. Fire season makes for long, long days with intense heat from the sun and from fire. Fasting in such an environment can be dangerous. I hope and pray this has changed. Twenty years have passed since then, and there needs to be something in place for Muslims who fight fire. 

Q: How did you make Ramadan work in prison before, and how did it change during the pandemic?

I make Ramadan work by making sure I have plenty of food, usually from the canteen. On days that are difficult, I stay in the cell away from others so I can maintain my fast. I also find people to feed who are less fortunate than me, and help as many people as I can during the Holy Month. These practices are things I do even outside of Ramadan, and not much has changed with regard during the pandemic, except that there is less interaction due to quarantine. I still make it work as best I can. And I will always do this work. 

Q: What do you do to try to forge a spiritual connection during this time of year?

Prayer, meditation, reading the Quran and other scriptures, and charity help me with my spiritual connection during Ramadan. It should be noted that I try to keep these practices up all year long, but I focus more during Ramadan.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

George Coles-El is a poet, writer, graffiti artist and tutor. He writes under the pen name Mesro Dhu Rafa’a, which means “stand with the sun, master of the ascendants.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, he completed an anthology of writings called "Unsung Hero." He is incarcerated in California.