COVID-19 brings new challenges for Muslim inmates during Ramadan

Restrictions related to the COVID-19 outbreak have made observing Ramadan more difficult for Muslims in prisons and jails.

Connor Echols

A copy of Islam’s sacred text, the Quran, alongside Muslim prayer beads.

The convergence of a global pandemic and the holiest month in the Muslim calendar has created new barriers for Muslims in custody who seek to observe their religious practices, according to advocates, current and formerly incarcerated people, and their families.

Many Muslim people observe Ramadan, which started last week, through fasting, communal prayer and meals, and charitable activities. The fast lasts from dawn to sundown, meaning those in the Chicago area will abstain from food and water from around 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. this year.

It can be difficult under normal circumstances for incarcerated people, whose lives are dictated by their institution’s schedule, to observe the holiday, said Sufyan Sohel, the deputy director of Muslim civil rights organization CAIR-Chicago.

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“We had issues in the past where sometimes a meal wouldn’t be given until two or three hours after sundown,” said Sohel. Waiting to break the fast is considered by some Muslims to be a sin, according to Sohel.

Last month, Yusef Hakeem called his mother from Centralia Correctional Center to complain that communal prayers had been cancelled as a social distancing measure, yet prisoners were still held in double cells and allowed to eat in the chow hall. (Hakeem was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a 2019 child pornography conviction.)

Then, less than a week before Ramadan started, prison officials placed Hakeem in segregation after he allegedly refused to enter his cell while his cellmate was on the toilet, according to his mother, Evie Hakeem. Since then, she has been unable to talk to him on the phone, meaning she can’t read him a daily verse from the Quran, as she used to do.

“It just takes a toll on me when I can’t speak to him, when I can’t ask him personally how he’s doing,” said the mother. “I’m trying to just remain calm and rely on my faith that everything is going to work out.”

Even for those who aren’t in segregation, the pandemic has reduced access to prison commissaries, which is often how Muslim inmates get access to enough food to eat after the fast, according to CAIR-Chicago. The organization recently sent a letter to prison wardens explaining that “many Muslims inmates rely on the food items they buy from commissary to get the proper nutrition they need throughout the month of Ramadan.”

Lindsey Hess, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, told Injustice Watch that protecting prisoners’ religious rights is a priority for the agency. She added that prison chaplains are working to ensure that prisoners are able to fast, pray and access religious materials despite the restrictions associated with COVID-19. She did not respond to questions related to the CAIR-Chicago letter.

Over two dozen local and national faith groups recently published an open letter calling on state officials to accommodate dietary restrictions, provide medication at night, and allow for special nightly communal prayers, known as taraweeh, despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

As of 2018, approximately 8.5 percent of IDOC prisoners identified as Muslim, according to a report from Muslim Advocates, a national advocacy group.

Local advocates are working with correctional officials to help ensure that Muslim inmates can follow religious guidelines during Ramadan. Some prisons have received special Ramadan-related food items, like dates and zam-zam water, that are being distributed to Muslim prisoners, according to Hess.

CAIR-Chicago is working with IDOC and other correctional agencies to make sure that inmates can get food and water at appropriate times, according to Sohel. He added that CAIR-Chicago has also provided correctional officials with links to virtual prayer services that mosques have made available because of state restrictions on communal gatherings. But it is unclear if Muslim inmates have been able to access those livestreams.

Coronavirus adds to isolation for Muslim inmates

Before the outbreak, advocates and formerly incarcerated people said corrections officials already struggled to meet Muslim inmates’ religious needs and comply with laws mandating religious protections.

Mustafa Hawthorne, a formerly incarcerated man who manages a reentry program with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), said correctional officers are often unfamiliar with Islam, leading to confusion about religious practices.

For example, some inmates have been taken off the list for Ramadan meals after missing a day of fasting, even though there are exceptions that allow for Muslims to skip fasting under certain circumstances, according to Maryam Kashani, a Muslim professor and organizer with the group Believers Bail Out.

Women are not obligated to fast while menstruating, and men can also miss a day of fasting if they are sick, Kashani said.

Another issue is that Muslim inmates often do not have access to halal food, said Nasir Blackwell, a formerly incarcerated activist who works with IMAN. He says that fixing these problems can be difficult without external support.

Relatively few organizations focus on the rights of Muslim prisoners, and those that do are dealing with reduced donations and stretched organizational capacity as they adapt to the pandemic, advocates said.

“People hear you, but will they have time?“ Blackwell said. “That’s frustrating because you understand these needs should have [already] been resolved.”

Activists expressed concerns that inmates will struggle with feelings of isolation during the holy month, especially in light of restrictions related to COVID-19.

The Cook County Sheriff’s Office is no longer allowing religious volunteers to conduct in-person services in the jail, according to Sophia Ansari, a spokeswoman for the office. She said that her office encourages faith-based organizations to send “appropriate religious books and pamphlets for detainees to continue their worship while in custody.” Ansari added that her office intends to hold its annual service to mark the end of Ramadan, which will be adjusted to follow state policies on social distancing.

Kashani’s organization, Believers Bail Out, which posts bond for Muslims in jail and educates the Muslim community about criminal justice and prison abolition, is working on initiatives to help Muslim inmates feel less isolated. Some of their efforts include a pen pal program and opening their phone lines so that detainees at Cook County Jail will “have someone to talk to, whether they have questions about Ramadan or just want to commiserate with another Muslim,” she said.

Kashani says that one of her organization’s clients at the Cook County Jail is the only Muslim person in his cell block.

“He’s basically in charge of his own religious services at this point and has no access to other people, which is really isolating and is really not how we generally practice Ramadan or Islam at all,” Kashani said. “To be alone during Ramadan is really hard.”