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

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Source: The New York Times

By

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.”

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