Malik is calling from the jail asking for the numbers of any Muslims he can contact just to talk to, maybe hear some Quran from. The last time he prayed with community was during Ramadan last year, and since then, his requests for spiritual services have been denied.

Last year, Muslim prisoners at Burnside (Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility) spoke out in the media to reporter Aya Al-Hakim about the conditions they were facing during Ramadan. They felt weak from fasting because they were not receiving adequate food to break their fast. They longed to pray with other Muslims, and to visit with Imams.

After that story hit the news, Rana Zaman organized a visit to Burnside by a number of local Muslims. For one prisoner who converted while in the jail, it was the first (and only) time he had ever had the opportunity to pray together with a community of Muslims. “I felt like I was out of jail,” he told me. “It was the best day I ever had in jail being able to share my faith and feel part of a loving community.”

Image from asianews.it

But since that day, Muslim prisoners say that they have received no other visits, and that requests for visits, books, and religious instruction have been ignored.

Now, a year later observing Ramadan again, they face the exact same conditions they struggled with last year. They report being given box cereal in the mornings to break their fast with at night, rather than food that is high in protein. The diet leaves them feeling sick at a time when they are supposed to be focused on prayer, charity, and remembering those less fortunate.

After I posted about the struggles of Muslim prisoners during Ramadan, in a post on Halifax Muslims, Rana Zaman asked:

…Last year for the first time our community came together to help our Muslim brothers in prison and arrange prayers with them. Seeing the tears of gratefulness from these isolated brothers after prayers, many of us showed regret and sadness that we had not been supporting these brothers… Once again these brothers are not receiving community support, especially now when they are fasting under some of the most difficult conditions! How will Allah t’ala accept our duas and fasting when we do not lift a finger to help the most vulnerable in our community? Is this what Ramadan/Islam is about? We need to contact the prison, send emails and visit these brothers to help strengthen them and stay steadfast in their faith!

The outpouring of support from local Muslims and the many Muslims who have responded by offering visits, books, and advocacy is appreciated deeply by the prisoners. However, the difficulties faced by the Muslim prisoners are not isolated. Hindu prisoners have also raised concerns about the lack of access to adequate diet and religious supports. For example, prisoners requiring a vegetarian diet for religious reasons recount being fed peanut butter, and bread with processed cheese as meals. This diet for months on end leads to nutritional deficiencies and serious bone and health problems.

Indigenous prisoners, meanwhile, repeatedly testify to not receiving medicine bundles or having bundles opened by staff. They report lack of access to regular sweats, and being deprived of smudge kits if they are in solitary confinement.

Image from CTV news.

While Muslim prisoners are given prayer mats and Qurans, their struggles with broader access to religious services raise questions about the way the Charter right to practice religion is actually implemented.

The obligation, for example, to provide a vegetarian or Halal diet can be met by providing cereal as meals, but these are hardly adequate menus. When prisoners have to fight to see spiritual advisors of their faith, while Christian chaplains are employed in every institution, then it’s hard to argue that all prisoners are given equal rights to practice their faith.

Prison Law and Human Rights lawyer Asaf Rashid points to the obligations institutions have to provide religious supports:

It is unlawful for inmates to be deprived of religious services in prison, and certainly unjustified to deny services to those who are part of minority religions. Inmates do not lose their human rights upon being incarcerated.

In 1979, in the case of Solosky v. The Queen, Supreme Court of Canada made it clear that persons confined to prison retain all of their civil rights, other than those expressly or impliedly taken from them by law. Far too often, this binding law is ignored when it comes to the fundamental rights of inmates.

Everyone has the right to freedom of religion as stated in section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter). When someone is in jail, that person loses the ability to access religious services in the community, which makes it incumbent on the administration of the prison to ensure that they are not interfering with religious practice and ensuring that resources for religious services are fairly allocated.

In the context of federal prisons, the Commissioner’s Directive on inmate religious accommodations (Number: 750-1) requires that religious accommodations are in compliance with the Charter. This includes religious diets.

In the Nova Scotia context, the Correctional Services Act, section 58(2) requires that, “Where, in the opinion of the superintendent it is reasonable to do so, the superintendent shall provide special diets to offenders for religious, cultural or health reasons.”

It is certainly unreasonable to deny minority religions meals in compliance with their religions. This includes the timing and content of the meals for Muslim people during the holy month of Ramadan. Unequal distribution of religious services and accommodation, with minority religions marginalized, would be breaches of equality under section 15 of the Charter, and breaches of human rights law across Canada.

Lawyer Hanna Garson advocates with prisoners about the conditions of confinement. Garson has encountered many cases of prisoners of many faiths and spiritual practices complaining that they struggle to practice their religion while incarcerated. Garson argues:

Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is responsible for the health and safety of those imprisoned within. It is legally obligated to both provide diets that live up to nutritional standards of Canada’s food guide, and accommodate religious requirements according to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act.

Complaints show that it has not consistently lived up to these standards and must invest time and energy to ensure these legal obligations are being met. 

Corrections officials have indicated their keenness in ensuring they do meet these standards in the future. To ensure Corrections consistently meet these standards, independent oversight is required. As history has shown us that without such oversight, what has been interpreted as meeting these standards quickly backslide. 

For example, a prisoner may still be able to walk while attesting to ill health. Providing inadequate protein despite clear markers of deterioration in health and muscle atrophy, and using mobility as a marker of health would be an example of how the letter of the law may be followed, but it seems clear that in any meaningful way, the obligation to provide equal access and services is not being met. 

Image from aljazeera.com

As Malik tells me when I ask about practicing his faith while incarcerated:

The joy of being a Muslim is profound. We’re trying to reach spiritual awakeness. Obviously we realize we’re in prison, but we can’t compromise our fundamental freedoms, nor should we have to.

We feel like there’s a racial component to it. I’ve requested books to be sent here. People can grow. Look at the example of Malcolm X. He came out of prison, he was a speaker and leader for his whole nation.

There’s people reaching out to me for me to explain and spread Islam. But I don’t have the resources, or the books, to explain. It’s usually people of colour who are reaching out. When you look at the sentences handed out, we’re the longest here; we have the worst sentences.

And then we should talk about what’s going on the range. The frequent lockdowns. The fact that we haven’t got yard in 10 days. The fact that the place is mouse infested. The fact that they took our cleaning supplies. In this kind of deprivation you would think that they would encourage prayer. You’d think that they would promote and adhere to someone’s beliefs, because Islam says, “seek help through patience and prayer.” But we also have to fight for our dignity and what’s right.

And I’m not thinking about myself, you know. I’m thinking about others who came behind us. I was reading about Malcolm X last night, and it was talking about the [bus] boycotts in Montgomery. And one woman could barely walk, and they offered her a ride, and she said, I’m not walking for myself, I’m walking for my children and grandchildren.

I feel like me going through this spiritual hardship is making me stronger, but make no mistake, my faith is being tested. Because I’m trying to hold onto God and the qualities Islam teaches, but when you see people thwarting honourable endeavours, and righteous conduct, a true man of God has no choice but to speak out at that point.

Idil Abdillahi, Assistant Professor at Ryerson University, observes that there are particular intersections between incarceration, Islam, and race. She points to the number of people, especially men, who convert to Islam while incarcerated:

First and foremost, it is not a new idea that across the Americas, the people who tend to engage Islam the highest within correctional institutions happen to be non-Muslims reverting to Islam. There’s been lots of studies particularly throughout the United States that look at and speak to what this experience is about. There are not as many studies in Canada, but I think that’s a site we need to think about and consider around in terms of what happens to people when they’re incarcerated and why they turn to Islam in particular ways. That’s an interesting question in and of itself.

Image from dailynigerian.com

Abdillahi puts the struggles of Muslim prisoners, especially converts to the faith, in the context of broader narratives of colonialism, anti-Blackness, and Islamophobia.

Historically we see the correctional system has always had a problem in terms of worship and allowing people to observe their cultural, religious, traditional spiritual rights, and we saw that originally with the refusal of Indigenous peoples to engage in Sun dance, to speak their languages while they were incarcerated, and to engage in their own practices.

And we of course still see Indigenous prisoners fighting for their traditional practices, such as people held in solitary or maximum security being denied access to sweats, while Christians in the same situation can still access Bibles. And so that in and of itself serves as the blueprint for how the rest of us who are seen as “not belonging here” will then be treated.

Now, I think the interesting thing about being Muslim, is that although anybody can be Muslim and Islam is a religion and is not inherently related to race, we do have to take into account the people who tend to revert to Islam and put that in context with the disproportionate number of both racialized and Black people that are incarcerated. 

And so if we think about notions about who’s reverting, and who’s incarcerated, then we will see that there’s a higher number of folks that are racialized, although I’m not suggesting those are the only people.

Abdillahi suggests that the reluctance of institutions to take seriously the religious demands of Muslim prisoners can be a result of stereotypes and ideas of why people convert, and the sincerity of their faith.

There seems to be a discourse [within both federal and provincial corrections] that there are those who are real, valid, “good” Muslims, and there are those who say they are Muslim just to get a meal.

And what I want to point to first is that neither of those are wrong. So the people who feel that they need to lie to get a better meal, those people need care too. Because they are telling us that food insecurity is an issue in prison. Caloric intake is an issue in prison. They’re telling us that they need some kind of better food. Whether the food is better or not, that’s debatable. But we need to take up the issue that if the claim is that people need to lie to get a better meal, what does that say about the meals that are being provided regularly.

Then we need to take up that there is something Islamophobic about the narrative of one particular group – converts to Islam – being accused of insincerity in faith in ways that Christians who begin attending chapel, for example, do not tend to face. And why there is the idea that there needs to be a form of policing and surveillance around that. 

Image from The Independent.

Muslim prisoners point out that while white prisoners who self-identify as Indigenous are allowed access to Indigenous ranges, elders, and sweats often without questions, Black prisoners who convert to Islam are scrutinized and questioned about their faith.

Abdillahi, like Garson, suggests that more effort needs to be made by those with good intentions within correctional institutions to reach out to those with expertise in providing religious supports.

The issue of religious rights, she points out, also intersect with the immigration system and with growing xenophobic fears in Canada about the wrong kinds of immigrants — brown, Black, and Muslim immigrants — disrupting the “values” of Canada. Those on immigration hold who are not accused of committing any criminal acts, for example, are still subjected to punitive conditions, many of whom are also Muslims or of other non-Christian faiths.

The policing of Muslim prisoners, and fears around Muslim conversion, can’t be separated from narratives about Muslims as terrorists, dangerous, and inherently radicalized. Surveillance of Black and Muslim gatherings, accusations of gang memberships, monitoring of “radical” reading material or discussions, and punishment by institutions for political discourse are all parts of the practices that reveal how Blackness and Islam are seen as threatening institutional security. Abdillahi continues:

And then we need to take up the ways that corrections in general is not prepared to deal with diversity in the ways they should, particularly across this country, So while I think it’s important that I’m critiquing them particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, I do want to name the work of people like Chaplain Rashid Taylor who is doing progressive work with Muslim prisoners.

So if there are some chaplains and some Imams that do this work in a way that’s critical while doing advocacy and providing faith-based support, what is happening in a place like Nova Scotia? What is happening in a place like Burnside where people are not getting the care they need? We need to take into account notions of dominance and power in those spaces, and who is perceived as being other.

And even within Islam we need to take up that often those who are religious often forget about the Muslims on the periphery who still should have access to faith.

And so I think that while Ramadan brings a moment that we can focus on Muslim prisoners, we need to focus on these issues all the time. We need to focus on Muslim prisoners more readily because if this is how they’re treated during Ramadan — I want us to remember that Muslims pray five times a day. Depending on your level of religiosity, you may actually fast throughout the year. So how do those in institutions take seriously the experiences of Muslim prisoners and in particular revert Muslim prisoners?

And more importantly, how do they respond to the negligence and outcry of Muslim prisoners knowing that there are people doing with work elsewhere. How do we encourage them to reach out to people who have this experience?

Abdillahi concludes by connecting the negligence prisoners report around religious supports to broader stereotypes of Muslims.

Fundamentally, we have to think about the ways Islam is seen as deviant. So when we layer that deviance on a Black male body, on a criminalized body, on poor people, on people living with mental health issues, that further compounds their experiences of anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, etc.

Image from The National Post.

The institutional reluctance and fears around prisoners practicing Islam stand in marked contrast to the way prisoners speak about the calm, healing, and sense of accountability practicing their faith. As Malik tells me:

Ramadan is a time of restraint, reflection, and remorse. We think of the poor people of the world and feel grateful for what we have. I think of how I am fortunate, despite being incarcerated, in all that I have, that I can pray. My goal at this time is to get myself back as a child of God. 

Malik leaves me with one final thought. He brings up the Charter of Rights, and reminds me that Canadians see ourselves as leaders in human rights in the world.

But then they do as much to stop Muslims as Donald Trump. I don’t think we can say we’re any better when Muslims are living in these conditions, and when we seem to think that a punishment for going to jail is not being able to practice your religion. How is that right or just?


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El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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