This article was first published by Scalawag, a media organization that illuminates dissent, unsettles dominant narratives, pursues justice and liberation, and stands in solidarity with oppressed people and communities in the South.
A warm breeze carries the scent of Creed Prayer Oil as Muslims at Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami-Dade County, Florida, stir out from our dorms for Suhoor, the last meal before fasting.
It’s April 2, the first day of Ramadan. The air is warm at 4 in the morning and like a memory, the small palm tree outside my dormitory refuses to stay put.
“Assalamu Alaykum,” Brother Abdus Salaam, a 54 year-old teacher at Everglades C.I. says to the room of 50 plus men. “Wa Alaykumu Salam,” they all say in unison, smiling as the Muslim community joins together to embark on the month-long fast. The dining hall felt so unexpectedly comfortable as we ate our Suhoor meal of Rice Krispies, cinnamon rolls and dates.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, which makes the fast of ritual abstinence from food and drink from dawn to dusk for 30 days a fundamental part of the religion. But for many Muslims, including those of us inside, Ramadan is more than that — it’s a time for spiritual growth, a renewed commitment to be obedient to God. As a celebration of the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Ramadan is a time to take your spirituality to the next level, where practitioners develop self-discipline, self control, self-evaluation, patience and God-consciousness.
As the blessed month approached, Muslims at Everglades C.I. began setting resolutions and goals that we wanted to achieve.
I used the time between prayers to interview three Muslim brothers about their hopes for the month.
“The experience itself is the blessings that occur during the month of Ramadan,” said 27-year-old Abdul-Wahid, a practicing Muslim at Everglades C.I.
We had just received our bagged meals, and the excitement was building as we waited another two and a half hours to break our fast at sundown. We never know what’s in our bags until we receive them, and this curiosity adds flavor to our joy of trading food and sharing stories.
Originally from West Palm Beach, Abdul-Wahid converted to Islam two years ago. “The chase of finding and connecting yourself spiritually, excites me about Ramadan.”
Imam Bashir, 55, is the imam who leads Muslims in prayer at Everglades C.I. He grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and converted to Islam in prison in 1986. While assisting new believers in deepening their understanding of the Deen, his goal this Ramadan is “adhering more to the Quran and Sunnah [emulating Prophet Muhammad’s way of life]. Indulging more in Dhikr [remembrance of God] and being more of a better brother to my brothers.”
Islam is the fastest-growing religion globally. That trend is also reflected in the U.S. prison system, where Muslims are one of the largest religious groups, second only to Christians.
Muslims make up a little more than 10 percent of Florida’s incarcerated population. That’s comparable to how many Muslims are incarcerated throughout the U.S. But their constitutional rights are often violated by prison facilities that ignore their own rules, and at times disregard federal law.
During a holy season like Ramadan, the lack of care is most evident. For example, Muslims are often denied access to sacramental food, though accommodations are routinely made for Jewish, Christian, and Catholic observances. This is one of many issues Muslim organizations are working to address — not only out of civic responsibility, but also as a part of their faith practice.
In the South, the number of Muslims in men’s and women’s prisons has rapidly increased over the last decade. Kentucky’s Muslim prison population jumped almost 26 percent from 2010 to 2018. Texas prisons reflected a similar increase over the same period. Georgia, where the incarcerated Muslim population is much smaller, saw a whopping 55 percent increase, from 309 Muslims in 2010 to 478 by 2018.
Despite these trends, Muslims on the inside still struggle to practice their religion freely.
Between October 10, 2017, and January 23, 2019, 34 cases of litigation nationally were submitted to federal courts on the way prisons and jails handled Ramadan. In addition, another 57 were filed on prayer, 64 on dietary restrictions, and 15 on facial hair, according to a 2019 report conducted by Muslim Advocates.
Muslim Advocates is a civil rights organization founded after the passage of the Patriot Act in 2005 to end discrimination against Muslims in America. They found that in 2018, the total number of Muslims in US prisons was 84,882. About 10,000 of those Muslims are incarcerated in Florida according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a nationwide Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group.
First established in 1995, CAIR now has 30 chapters across the country. The Florida chapter established the Muslim Inmates Advocacy program in 2018 to ensure the religious rights of Muslims in Florida prisons.
“Ramadan is one of our busiest months. We see a jump in the number of complaints,” said Salma Abdelrahman, a public service fellow at CAIR-Florida’s Muslim Inmate Advocacy program.
Complaints vary from Suhoor meals being served at an inappropriate time, to prison officers spreading misinformation on whether Muslims could drink water or not during Ramadan, to obstacles regarding the Ramadan list that Muslims have to be on in order to participate in the ritual fast. These lists are made months in advance, so if a person were to convert to Islam a week before Ramadan or during Ramadan, it is almost impossible for them to participate.
“So, we address that it’s unconstitutional. It’s illegal to limit someone from joining a Ramadan list, especially if they are expressing sincerely held belief,” said Abdelrahman.
“We are talking about a population of Muslims that makes up a large percentage of the Muslim population in Florida. It’s on us to ensure that Muslims in prison have a right to practice Ramadan in a way that’s in accordance with the Sunnah.”
CAIR-Florida sends a yearly follow-up report to wardens and chaplains across the state. In it, they list the complaints that the organization heard from Muslims in prison about how the institutions handled Ramadan, and offer tips on how prisons could help Muslims during the month.
Preparations for Ramadan vary from state to state, county to county, prison to prison.
At Everglades C.I., the memo consists of making sure that prison guards wake up Muslims at 4.30 a.m. to shower and eat Suhoor. The memo also states that the prison has to provide a place to pray for all five of the daily prayers, stressing the importance of reading the Quran during the month and having a meal when they break their fast.
Despite these preparations, Muslims at Everglades C.I. don’t always get the whole Ramadan experience, due to late wake-up calls and food service not being prepared on time. “If I had to grade it, the administration, I would give it a B-,” said Abu Ali who’s originally from Alachua, Florida, and practices within Everglades C.I. “They still can’t seem to wake us upon time in the mornings.”
Another initiative that occupies much of CAIR-Florida’s advocacy surrounds not the schedule of fasting, but the availability of sacramental foods in prison during the holy month.
It is tradition for Muslims to break their daily fast with dates. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ate dates when he broke his fast, and since Muslims try to emulate him, that means also breaking fast with the same dry fruit.
“Spiritually, I feel as though Allah is pleased in knowing that I am striving to follow the best example ever sent to mankind, as he commanded,” Imam Bashir said. “Personally, it makes me feel good to know that I am breaking my fast the way [The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)] did, and with the same thing he did.”
The Imam also happily noted that dates are delicious. “It tastes like I have a mouth full of raisins, and it feels like I’m chewing soft taffy.”
But dates are very challenging for Muslims to get on the inside, as many facilities do not consider dates as sacramental food, like matzah for Passover or wine for Eucharist.
“We really got to push for advocacy to include dates in the sacramental foods,” says Abdelrahman. “Since then we have worked to provide the dates for [those incarcerated]. It’s a process that takes a lot of back and forth between all the facilities in Florida.”
This year, 40 facilities in Florida accepted CAIR-Florida’s date donations, and they sent out 2,524 dates to incarcerated Muslims.
If Muslim men have very limited help and access to basic religious needs on the inside, Muslim women have it even worse.
Safiyyah Jihad Levine knows full well the lack of funding that women in prisons get. Levine, who spent most of her career as a Muslim chaplain at the Pennsyvania Department of Corrections until recently retiring, says that most of the funding comes from donations. When it comes to Muslim women, oftentimes old attitudes toward women play a major role.
“They would kick out the cash for the men,” said Levine. “I have heard people say to me, ‘Oh sister, you work with women in prison? Really, there’s Muslim women in prison?’ And then the next question they ask me is how many women are there [in the state of Pennsylvania] and I would say approximately 150. And they are shocked that there’s that many Muslim women in prison.”
Katherine Morales converted to Islam on November 8, 2016. She’s now at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma, where she says that being a Muslim woman in prison is challenging, especially when the head chaplain isn’t Muslim.
She recounts a time last year when the chaplain made the kitchen provide Muslim women with very limiting foods for Suhoor. Morales recalls the chaplain saying that there wouldn’t be a Eid, so there was no use in fasting.
Chaplaincies play a massive role in advocating for a religious group’s rights to practice freely.
Many Muslim chaplains and volunteers consistently mention in interviews the importance of having more Muslim chaplains in the U.S. prison system. Despite Muslims making up the second largest religious group in prison, a 2021 audit conducted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons Management on the chaplaincy program found that there are only 13 Muslim chaplains across all U.S. prisons.
Muraabat Tyler of Gainesville, Florida, is the president of Mecca 20/20, an organization that promotes positive engagement in the Muslim community. He knows that in order for incarcerated Muslims to get their basic needs met, correctional facilities need to understand the religion.
“It took time, it took dedication, and it took persistence,” said Muraabat, who became involved in civic engagement and interfaith fellowship after his own incarceration. It was slow, but eventually prison staff started listening. His facility first established Friday prayers at facilities, then Ramadan, and then Eid al-Fitr, which is the first of Islam’s two official holidays and marks the end of Ramadan.
For the past two years, Muslims in Everglades C.I., just like Muslims on the outside, have spent the month of Ramadan alone. Prisons were hit hard during the pandemic. According to The Marshall Project, which has tracked the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in prisons and jails across the country, found that in Florida alone, there were 18,072 cases and 221 deaths.
“We were not able to come together to pray, study or eat,” remarked Imam Bashir’s assistant Raheem of the last years’ observances. “Everything was centered around the Muslims in the dorm with you. And the food took a nose dive. Meaning, it was inadequate. It used to be hot and now it was ‘Get ya bag and go!'”
This April, with the availability of COVID-19 vaccines and increased vaccination rates, Muslims in Everglades C.I. were able to pray and break fast together for the first time in two years.
“It was beautiful,” Abu Ali said about this year’s Ramadan experience. “It was the first time the community was all together in a while. It was very welcoming. Felt like I was stepping deep into my inner self.”
To ensure that Muslims in prison do have an enriching Ramadan experience, those inside have named outside sponsorships as key. When Muslim organizations and mosques don’t sponsor foods, prayer mats, Qurans, and hijabs, it is challenging for Muslims to get these items from the facility.
“It’s very important to have sponsorship during Ramadan, because it shows a meaningful connection with the Muslim world, and increases the incarcerated Muslims’ faith, hope, our love for brothers and sisters that we don’t know, and spreads a lot of joy among the Muslim community,” says Brother Abdus Salaam who converted to Islam in 1997 in prison.
In Gainesville, Tyler knows there are challenges in getting more and more Muslims on the outside involved in the work Mecca 20/20 and CAIR are doing to support those on the inside. “This prison conditioning is a new awareness for them. Overall, most of them are willing to assist when they can, and we are putting forth a great effort to address this issue,” he said.
For Abdelrahman, old stigmas and stereotypes of incarcerated people seep into the conversations when talking to Muslims leaders.
“There’s sometimes this understanding from different conversations that we have from community members, ‘Oh these are bad Muslims and we shouldn’t work to help them or aid them in any way because they are in prison for a reason.'”
But she reminds Muslims leaders that part of our duty as Muslims is to help Muslims in need. “Even though in your eyes and in the eyes of the state they need to be detained because of something that they have done, in the eyes of God, all of the things that they have done in the past are forgiven and flipped into good deeds.”
Heading off to the chapel, the brothers at Everglades C.I. lay out our prayer rugs for a final salaat during the sacred month.
As another Ramadan comes to an end, the Muslims at Everglade will continue to strengthen our faith and our relationship with God and celebrate a very joyous Eid.
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.