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Hands holding Muslim prayer beads for Ramadan
Photo by Juanmonino on iStock

On April 2, I started my 21st Ramadan being locked up. Sitting in my cell late at night, I almost shudder thinking about the years that have gone by.

I think of my very first Ramadan behind bars in the Hudson County Correctional Facility, in 2002, when I was arrested and kept pre-trial. I vividly remember that I made dua and prayed for God Almighty to provide me relief so I could return to my family before the following Ramadan.

From that day on, in every passing Ramadan, I have made the same dua and have waited for the day my prayer will be heard and I am returned to my family. That mercy has not yet come.

Life inside prison is such that it is easier to despair. Oftentimes, I feel bouts of hopelessness and sadness. But the thought of giving up on hope, on life, is not something that is innate in me.

The Relentless Pain of Prison

I am a Muslim Pakistani American, and resilience comes naturally to me. The unrelenting life behind bars tests me, but I continue to hold on, largely due to the holy month of Ramadan.

Prison life causes a considerable amount of mental anguish and stress. The barrage of worries about security codes, the mood of the staff and the attitude of prisoners serving never-ending life sentences on top of issues with family outside can put anyone at the precipice of a mental breakdown.

The ebbs and flows of prison life between bad and worse oftentimes forces a prisoner to pick the lesser of the two evils.

There is a constant feeling of a dull pain, a pang somewhere deep inside the chest. Every prisoner, myself included, feels an impending doom, as if something bad is about to happen. I learned recently that experts call this condition post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety, headaches, upset stomachs and high blood pressure are some of the most common ailments in prison. Even after 20 years, I still feel uneasy as soon as the morning count is cleared around 6:30 a.m. when the doors are opened for breakfast. This feeling stays with me until the final night count at 9:00 p.m. when the doors are shut behind me and I’m left in my single-man cell.

An Annual Reset

Once inside, I can finally breathe and relax. As soon as I sit on my bunk, my body starts to crack. It literally softens after an entire day of feeling constricted, as if there was a thick rope around me, my muscles tightening to a point where it hurts, my neck and shoulders in knots.

This daily suffering only ends with my nightly prayers when I sit on my prayer rug to open my heart to the Almighty.

This everyday grind takes its toll, leaving me tired and drained. After a year of suffering, the reprieve from above comes in the form of Ramadan. It’s a yearly blessing that resets my mental, physical and spiritual state.

During Ramadan, the regimen of prison life alters considerably. There is less movement, and recreation activity is lighter than usual. About a third of the prison population fasts during the day. There is a calmness that affects even non-Muslim prisoners; the prison guards seem relaxed as well. There is a sense of tranquility all around.

Ramadan is when I literally detach from prison. I spend more time in solitude and reflection. The increased prayers and the quiet works as a tonic for my soul. For the briefest of moments, I feel as if I’m not here. That alone mends my mind and body.

Many of my non-Muslim friends in here fast as well. Some do it for health reasons, as a way to detox. Others do it to lose weight and fast for a few days during the month. There are also those who say that fasting helps them to get close to their God.

The Secret Within Ramadan

People often ask me why Ramadan is so peaceful. I often smile in response. Besides the health benefits of not eating as much and giving our overworked digestion system a break from processed foods, there is a secret within Ramadan that is key to one’s physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being. The secret is to speak less.

An Islamic scholar once said, “God has placed the tongue under two locks, one being your lips, and the other your jaw. So if the people would just understand the benefits of talking less, they would realize the harm this simple organ causes around the world.”

Ramadan in prison provides me and my community an opportunity to speak less and to cleanse our mind and body. Ramadan is a time to feed our souls.

Every year after Ramadan, I feel relaxed, rested and full of energy. I feel grateful to the Almighty for giving me space to recover. During the Eid al Fitr celebration that follows, I step out with vigor to face the challenges of another arduous year.

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.

Tariq MaQbool is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station.