March 13, 2024


The struggle to observe Ramadan while incarcerated
Muslims around the world begin observing Ramadan this week, including a large percentage of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons.

Muslims around the world begin observing Ramadan this week, including a large percentage of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania prisons. The Islamic holy month highlights the restrictions incarcerated Muslims often face trying to practice their religion behind bars–including a recent policy change by Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to no longer accommodate religious feasts.

Practicing the Muslim faith “was something that kept me going”

Fasting during daylight hours is an important duty for Muslims during Ramadan, a month marked by spiritual contemplation, acts of charity, and celebration. For David Meade, the Prison Society’s Graterfriends associate, it’s a time to cultivate mental discipline. “A person really gotta have that strength in order to endure it,” he says.

That’s especially true in prison, where breakfast and dinner are served on a fixed schedule, and incarcerated people depend on institutional support to do things like pray together, get copies of the scriptures, and follow the diet prescribed by their faith. But while it took strength to practice his Muslim faith while he was incarcerated, David says it was also an essential source of uplift.

“It was something that kept me going, something that gave me strength to keep on going to survive another day in there,” he says.

Muslims make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population in the United States, and their numbers are growing. More than one in five people incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons is Muslim, according to a 2019 report by Muslim Advocates. But they often face limits on their ability to observe their religion. Prisons and jails may have strict regulations on when they can wear a hijab, for example, or may not provide halal meals, Qu’rans, or regular opportunities to pray and worship together. 

So far this year, the Prison Society has responded to five requests for assistance from incarcerated people encountering barriers to practicing their religion in jail or prison. They included Muslims who were unable to obtain religious books or meet with an imam, or religious leader. In the Prison Society’s latest survey of county jails, nearly half of the counties reported not having a designated clergy member to provide religious services in jail.

Some of the greatest difficulties come during Ramadan. To accommodate those who are fasting, prisons have to adjust meal times so that they can have something to eat before sunrise and break their fast after sunset. Some jails do not provide this accommodation or are inconsistent about putting it into practice

The DOC takes away religious feasts

For most of the time David was in Pennsylvania state prisons, he was able to observe Ramadan without any major issues. That started to change during the pandemic. Prison dining halls closed, and he was no longer able to gather with fellow Muslims to share the feast during Eid Al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month. The prisons would still deliver a special halal meal to their cells, but it wasn’t the same.

“It's great when we all get together as one brotherhood and eat and drink together,” David says.

Then the Department of Corrections suddenly stopped a longstanding policy of facilitating special religious meals on feast days. Previously, people observing Ramadan could pay for the meals, which included halal meats like lamb, to be brought to their cells for Eid. Now, they have to choose from a meal on the regular prison menu–and the DOC does not offer halal meals.

“The consumption of halal meat is integral to the religious practice,” says Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project. The DOC’s reversal “essentially erased a well established accommodation the Department of Corrections has been providing to individuals for several decades.” 

Morgan-Kurtz is representing an incarcerated Muslim man at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Albion who is suing the DOC on the grounds that the new policy violates his freedom of religion. 

It eliminated not only special meals for the two Eid feasts Muslims celebrate, but for Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and the Native American Harvest Festival. The First Amendment and a federal statute, The Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act, protect the rights of incarcerated people to practice their religion. The statute requires prisons to prove that any constraints on religion serve a “compelling interest,” and that those constraints are the least restrictive way to carry out that interest, Morgan-Kurtz says.

“This case isn't asking for anything big and new and different,” Morgan-Kurtz says. “It's literally just asking the DOC to go back to doing the thing it was doing for decades.”

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