Muslims are no strangers to the ugly manifestation of Islamophobia in various ways, shapes, and forms. Specifically, in this latest form of Islamophobia, Muslim prisoners in Virginia were being denied their right to fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan, which began on the evening of April 23rd and ended on May 23rd, is a month-long observance that requires able-bodied Muslims to abstain from food, drink, and all worldly pleasures from sunrise to sunset each day. It is a time intended to boost spiritual cleansing through forms of worship such as prayer, self-reflection, reading of the Holy Quran, and acts of charity.
As stipulated in The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, legislation passed in 2000 to meet the religious needs of inmates, all incarcerated Muslims are fully within their rights to partake in the month of Ramadan so long as they submit a request to prison management. After submitting a request and registering as a Muslim, they are placed on a special “Ramadan List” that allows for adequate meals to be provided before and after each fast.
Due to the influx of requests, however, prison management in the Virginia Wallen Ridge State Prison ordered the Chaplain to arbitrarily deny several inmates the right to participate in Ramadan by withholding prisoner names from these designated lists. Additionally, inmates reported that Wallens Ridge staff refused to designate them as Muslim or erroneously dismissed requests to be designated as such to limit the number of Muslim inmates able to fast.
Vernon Ealy, a Muslim imam incarcerated in Franklin County Prison, PA, was placed in solitary confinement for saving oranges to eat whilst participating in the holy month of Ramadan— his reason for saving oranges being that officers didn’t provide food at the appropriate hours in which he could eat. This wasn’t the only bigotry Ealy faced either. Within the prison, he and all other incarcerated Muslims faced the withholding of their preferred religious text, the Quran. In fact, incarcerated Muslims pay almost three times as much for their religious texts than their Christian counterparts.
Through research conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Georgetown University on Islamophobia in the United States polls indicated that Muslims in America are “the minority group most likely to report experiencing religious discrimination in the United States.” Within the prison system, this is evident through the denial of Muslim inmate requests to observe Ramadan.
Yusuf Saei of Yale Law School puts the reality of prisons into perspective, “Prisons are not Constitution-free zones. As the population of Muslims held in state prisons grows, states clearly don’t take the First Amendment rights of their incarcerated populations seriously.”
Although this country is supposed to function through the foundations established in the Constitution, specifically the First Amendment— an Amendment that states, “…[Congress shall make no law] prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]…”— incarcerated Muslims continue to face unjust consequences in attempting to practice their right to freedom of religion.
As a result of instances like these, an organization founded in 2018, Believers Bail Out, actively works to help and support incarcerated Muslims. They utilize one of the major practices in Islam, Zakat— the giving of charity. Believers Bail Out recently raised over $240,000 in efforts to fight mass incarceration and money bail. However, their commitment to supporting incarcerated Muslims doesn’t stop with money bail. They work to support released individuals and create dialogue around Islam and abolition. Community-led groups like Believers Bail Out actively push for justice in an unjust prison system.
Maltreatment of Muslim inmates illuminates the need for action against Islamophobia in the United States; through the work of organizations such as Believers Bail Out, there is hope for Muslims fighting against these injustices.