A new sister asks a sensitive question about marriage and the rest of us giggle. “Alhamdulillah,” I think to myself, she remembers “There is no shyness in matters of religion.” It seems like any other halaqa to me – learning, laughter, friendship – except, of course, the other sisters are wearing cheap blue jeans and drab-coloured shirts with three large letters written across them in bright white “D.O.C” – aka Department of Corrections.
I volunteer with Muslim women in a multi-security level U.S. state prison with a population of about 890 women. U.S. prisons differ from jails in that the residents have been convicted of more serious crimes and face longer confinement. About 40 or so of the women in this prison identify themselves as Muslim, including Nation of Islam, Moorish Science, and Sunni, the group of women with whom I work.
Despite the generally friendly atmosphere in our halaqas, it is impossible to forget that prisons are serious places. The first thing you notice when you walk inside is that you are prevented from entering. Visitors are immediately greeted with a large, ominous-looking metal detector and a correctional officer waiting to frisk you. I understood just how serious prisons can be when I was visiting with another volunteer. As soon as she walked inside, she realised that she had forgotten her driver’s license to give as identification. Without saying a word, she headed back to her car to get it. Her abrupt departure raised a red flag. A correctional officer thinking that she might have drugs on her and panicked when she saw the police dog chased after her. He seemed to believe her story, but we were both told to sit in chairs while a surprisingly friendly yellow lab sniffed us from head to toe.
A women’s prison has a completely different vibe than a male facility. In men’s prisons, there is a palpable, violent undertone that constantly threatens the uneasy coexistence among residents and staff. But in the women’s prison, instead of an atmosphere laden with hostile tension, I sense a lot of sadness, but also a lot of hope. Islam appears to help these women deal with their confinement and look forward to their future. Several of the sisters have even found good in their situation, stating that if they had not gone to prison, they would have never accepted Islam. Others are able to endure long sentences – fifteen years or more – without bitterness. More amazing, one sister facing life without parole diligently reads her translation of the Qur’an and studies her deen, being among those few who have truly internalised what it means to be only travellers in this world.
A healthy perspective does not mean that life is in prison is at all easy. Prisons are stressful and depressing environments. Residents lose control over the most basic aspects of their lives such as when to sleep, what to eat, and how to dress. They are completely at the mercy of their captors and not everyone in authority executes control admirably, some are actually quite cruel. Minorities in prison (meaning here members of groups with less numbers) tend to suffer more as well, and being Muslim is no exception. Interestingly, when I asked several sisters what is the most difficult aspect of prison, they unanimously agreed that it is being unable to choose friends and acquaintances. They are forced to associate, often for years, with people they would otherwise actively avoid. This problem is exacerbated when your tormentor is your cellmate.
The cells where the women spend the vast majority of their time are small and cramped. A typical cell has two bunk beds, two small file cabinets for the few clothes allowed, a small “slab” acting as a table between the cabinets, and a toilet. The toilet is open and near the door where the officers can watch through a small window, which has been described to me as one greeting card wide and four greeting cards long. While sitting on the toilet, a person’s knees can touch a file cabinet and are only inches away from the lower bunk. There is barely enough room to move around, much less pray. One sister, who is now released, tried to give herself some privacy while going to the bathroom by making a makeshift curtain out of clothes, but her cellmate kept tearing it down and looking under it to harass her.
Praying in the small cell is always challenging, but particularly so with a cellmate who is not sympathetic to Islam. Some sisters report that they are forced to pray in the top bunk where they sleep; otherwise their cellmate walks back and forth over them, shoves them, or uses the toilet to bother them. Noise also is a successful harassment tactic. Residents are allowed approved television sets and radios. Cellmates often turn the television or radio “on full blast” to disturb prayers. A cellmate can even leave her television or radio on when she leaves the cell and the sister cannot turn it off or lower the volume because touching another person’s property is a serious infraction and can result in harsh discipline. Some sisters have learned this rule the hard way.
Although most of the sisters complain mainly of difficulties with non-Muslim residents, disagreements occur among the sisters as well. They range from simple personality conflicts to deeper issues related to the deen. At times, the halaqas have become heated and uncomfortable when the realities of prison life cannot be avoided. Even with the fitnahs that sometimes occur, the sisters agree that the company of the other Muslims, which is unfortunately rare, is far better than the company of anyone else in the facility. This is especially true during Ramadhan. One sister describes Ramadhan as “a special kind of peace.”
The women who sign up to participate in fasting during Ramadhan cannot attend breakfast or lunch with the rest of the residents. They must wake up very early, last year around 3:00am, and wait in a room for the pre-dawn meal. Depending on the time of year, they break fast well after maghrib or sit in the cafeteria for a long time waiting for maghrib to arrive.
Normally, the sisters are allowed to meet as a group twice a week for two hours on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. During Ramadhan, they see each other every day and night. The ability to be with other Muslims daily and having a respite from difficult cellmates and the others who constantly harass them is a joy that cannot be overstated.
Volunteers who are normally only permitted to attend the bi-weekly group meetings, can visit every night during Ramadhan. Although there have never been enough volunteers to take advantage of this privilege in this prison, the few extra visits and some Taraweeh prayers make a huge difference for the sisters.
A special meal also is supposed to be served for Eid al-Fitr. I use the word “supposed” because there have been years when the meal has not been provided because someone in authority forgot or neglected to follow through with the request. Missing the Eid meal is a tremendous blow to the woman as the normal prison cuisine is notoriously bad and repetitive. Receiving a special meal for Eid also is perceived as a tacit acknowledgment by prison authorities that Islamic holidays are worthy of celebration as well. When a special meal is not provided, the sisters not only feel deprived of the better food promised them once a year, but also that Muslims are not afforded the same respect and consideration of adherents of other religions.
Even with these and other inevitable disappointments and stresses that the sisters endure during Ramadhan, they describe it as a blessed time to get closer to Allah (SWT) and to increase their deen.
As I leave the prison, I nearly forget the clanging, clanking, and squeaking of thick metal fences slowly opening and closing on cold concrete. I am thinking about what the sisters just told me that they look forward to most when they are released: having more than one hijab, learning Arabic in school, mixing regularly with other Muslims, being able to pray unmolested and breaking fast with their children.
I started volunteering with the sisters in the prison because I wanted to help them. I did not expect how much the sisters would help me. They have taught me to be grateful for all that Allah (SWT) has put in my path, including the trials. I am blessed to witness how beautiful and transforming Islam can be even in the darkest moments for those open to the light of guidance. I am amazed at the strength of some of our sisters, who have surmounted seemingly insurmountable odds with dignity, good intentions, and unshakable faith. The experience leaves me honoured and humbled.
J. Samia Mair is the author of two children’s books, Amira’s Totally Chocolate World, and The Perfect Gift published by The Islamic Foundation. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals, and elsewhere.