Ramadan promotes a message of tolerance and togetherness. It requires a certain moral code and a particular way of life. Ramadan teaches us endurance and respect and is a further reminder to be anti-violent. It’s a month of devotion: you break free from the material and elevate yourself closer to God. It’s understandably a much busier time for chaplains. The prisoners are more demanding. Ramadan gives them a lift, and an opportunity to repent.
Every Friday we hold prayer time and spiritual and social discussions in the multi-faith room. This allows prisoners to consult us on religious and meditative practices. Unfortunately, Covid-19 is still making group meetings almost impossible this year. We have therefore had to suspend most services, and prisoners break their fast alone. When possible, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan happens collectively, but this is the only such group activity. However, most prisons still allow individual visits and packages to be delivered during Ramadan.
Each prisoner who wants to observe Ramadan must make the prison authorities aware that they will be fasting. Certain fasters choose not to declare this for fear of being “flagged S” [^S File], as they call it. This is not true; there is no such stigma.
Having a list of people who are fasting simply allows the administration and other organisations to better organise mealtimes. The fasters’ meals are arranged according to Iftar [the meal that breaks the fast] and Sahour [the meal eaten before dawn]. However, it’s up to the prisoners to rise in the morning. The staff are not responsible for waking them to begin their fast. The prison staff must remain impartial.
Some prisoners find the food available during this holy month inadequate, especially the meat. It’s something that has room for improvement. As chaplains, it’s also our job to coordinate with the prison administration so that the meals meet the fasters’ expectations in terms of both quality and quantity.
We are told who will be fasting so that we and the associations and mosques can prepare food parcels. We bring dates, packet soup, and other pasteurised foods. All prisoners are eligible for these parcels if they wish, they’re not just for the Muslim prisoners. Families are also allowed to bring parcels to prison visits.
I don’t feel there is any particular stigma against the prisoners who fast during the month of Ramadan. However, sometimes there is misunderstanding about Islam and certain religious practices such as Ramadan, which is often simply ignorance. For example, some prisoners use Ramadan to come back to God and repent. They spend more time praying, and sometimes they will read verses aloud or grow a beard. Some prison guards see this sudden change as a type of radicalisation. We must therefore remind them that it’s just a more intense period of prayer and connection with religion. Of course, at the same time, some prisoners do like to aggravate the situation. It’s up to us to remind them that they are free to practice their religion but that they should do so in a way that is respectful of their fellow prisoners.
[^S file]: The ‘S file’. S stands for “security of the State” and identifies individuals who may pose a threat to national security. For more information see Le Monde “Terrorism: What is the S file