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Ramadan: Behind the bars

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While Muslim families throughout the world observe the joyous month of Ramadan and excitedly await the day of Eid, for thousands of prison inmates this period is a stark reminder of life on the outside. VOC News recently visited Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison to hear the stories of Muslim inmates who shared their lived experience of Ramadan behind bars.

Walking through the heavily guarded compound, the grey exterior appears to be a far cry from its lush Tokai surroundings. The dim reality of prison dawns as we enter the precinct and are greeted by prisoners in brightly coloured jumpsuits –labelled ‘Corrections’. In their stares, we feel the atmosphere of Ramadan, which is so evident on the outside, drowning into a tense sea of despondency.

Despite being free to observe all religious obligations, Ramadan behind bars is a far cry from life with one’s family.

A fasting day in Pollsmoor

Prior to Ramadan, Muslim inmates who intend to observe the month are required to register and are subsequently relocated to a ‘Muslim room’, where they observe Ramadan in jamaa’ah.

Muhammad Isaacs, a resident of Medium B, entered prison at the age of 22 and has been incarcerated for the past 17 years. Despite his troubled background, Isaacs has turned his life around and today leads his fellow Muslim brothers during the month of Ramadan. Isaacs is a father of three.

Isaacs explains that once the fasting inmates perform Fajr Salah they begin reciting Surah Yaseen. Once wardens have completed the headcount, they then take a nap and wake-up an hour before Thuhr. Between Asr and Magrieb the inmates hold madrasa classes.

Wardens deliver the food to fasting inmates an hour before iftaar, which is followed by Esha and Taraweeh prayers.

Since their religious leader is not allowed to visit during the evening, the prisoners pray Taraweeh by reciting short suwar and end the evening listening to Taraweeh prayers broadcasted on Islamic radio stations.

As it is a requirement that prison staff include Muslim cooks to oversee the preparation of meals, Pollsmoor’s Muslim inmates have five Muslim cooks to prepare their meals.

Since it has proven difficult to get food donations during Ramadan, prisoners are restricted to prison food when breaking their fast.

Meanwhile, in the female section, mother of four Sharifika Khan, has found that incarceration has given her a new perspective on life and has strengthened her connection with Islam.

Khan explains that while most Muslim female inmates do not have much Islamic knowledge, they use their incarceration during the month of Ramadan to educate themselves and reconnect with the deen.

“When you are at home you have so many things to do with your children and you don’t have time to sit with the Qur’aan. So, it’s like we are personally here with the almighty.”

She says that the Ramadan room has provided the inmates with a space in which they can learn about the deen from each other and granted them an opportunity to develop spiritual connections while incarcerated.

The female inmates have maximised their incarceration by performing as much ibaadah as possible and have consistently performed Tahajjud prayers during this holy period.

 Eid behind bars

For inmates, the day of Eid consists of Eid Salah, which is performed at 8am, after which they are treated with food that is provided by Nakhlistan.

As the prison remains congested, Muslim inmates are not always able to find an available phone for them to call their families on Eid.

For Isaacs, the period leading to Eid celebrations is a bitter-sweet time.

“The month of Ramadan, especially the day of Eid, is a time that we spend with our families. But, Salah, deen and my constant connection with my family has given me peace,” Isaacs continued.

Khan says that despite being unable to celebrate Eid with her family, she remains positive that her incarceration is an opportunity for her to change her life for the sake of her children, her creator, but most importantly for herself.

 “Salah has given me strength”

While for most, the month of Ramadan is a time to solidify family relations, praying together and eating together, for fasting inmates the month is filled with ibaada and reflection.

Isaacs says that his prison journey has been “a blessing in disguise” and has taught him patience and appreciation; “appreciating the smile of your mother and the discipline of your father.”

“Everyone, when they in difficulty seeks Allah and that was the first journey that I took,” he notes.

Khan says that the month of Ramadan while being incarcerated has assisted her in finding her true self, which she says is evidence in the positive feedback that she has received by those around her.

In order to continue on this positive journey, she says that she will make an assertive effort to observe her salah following the completion of Ramadan.

In light of being considered by many as outcasts within society, the inmates say that their rehabilitation and continued improvement is their attempt at being positive role models for their children.

 Time away from family

As time away from ones family during Ramadan is naturally challenging, the inmates say that incarceration is a constant reminder of a life missed.

“Listening to the hufaath on the radio reminds me that I was supposed to take my son and daughters to the mosque – it’s a reminder every day,” Isaacs says.

For Khan, Eid is a reminder of the small things; from her Mitchells Plain community to the Athan echoed from the masjid.

 “DCS makes Ramadan possible”

In a prison that houses close to 9000 inmates, Pollsmoor has for years battled overcrowding. Despite continued struggles to maintain both the structure of the prison, as well as see to the needs of inmates, prison staff makes special provision for fasting Muslims.

Department of Correctional Services’ communications officer, Lewies Davids, explains that in light of limited resources and space the department makes extra arrangements to accommodate fasting inmates.

He says that the department believes in community based rehabilitation and, therefore, encourages all community members to do what they can to assist in the reformation of inmates.

“We need organizations like the Brotherhood to assist sentenced offenders. It is lonely inside and if they don’t have a positive mind-set and a pillar of strength then they may fall into gang activity. But if they have direction, incarceration becomes more bearable,” Davids asserts.

Davids further notes that during the month of Ramadan the department reports a significant drop in assault cases among inmates.

He says that there is also a sense of calm as all prisoners appear to respect the month as being a holy period.

In light of the lonely life that inmates live, Davids encourages the family members of inmates to support inmates, as it remains vital for their rehabilitation.

Isaacs explains that the atmosphere within prison drastically alters during this period as both wardens and non-Muslim inmates show respect for fasting inmates.

“You don’t get incidents where we have to tell people that we are fasting.”

 A message to their families

With her wonderful energy and gleeful sense of humour, Sharifika Khan’s warm embrace destroyed the reality of her current title. This is her message to her loved ones:

“Shukran to aunty Foezi, aunty Janap, my sons, my spiritual workers, the VOC, Radio 786, and Shaykh Ebrahim Gabriels for his morning naseegha.”

As some of the most marginalized individuals within society, the identities of inmates are often lost behind the orange jumpsuits. But Muhamad Isaacs’ respectful character and urnest words have proven that change is possible.

“Firstly, I need to ask my family, specifically my children, maaf for being in prison for many years – 17 years is a long time. And to my mother, who is very ill, i need to thank her for standing with me,” Isaacs shared to his family.

In Surah Mo’minoon, Allah says [which may mean]: “And We had gripped them with suffering [as a warning], but they did not yield to their Lord, nor did they humbly supplicate.”

During Ramadan, Allah introduces a new trial and calls upon us to increase our acts of worship. These inmates have certainly responded to his call.

VOC (Thakira Desai)


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