Muslim prisoners hold a Friday afternoon prayer in a Virginia state prison.
Andrew Lichtenstein—Corbis/Getty Images
May 12, 2021 7:17 PM EDT

Hubert Jason—a Black Muslim incarcerated at a Virginia state prison—says he was praying this April when a correctional officer came by his cell with a dinner tray. Jason had spent the whole day fasting as part of the holy month of Ramadan, refraining from both food and drink for more than 14 hours. Wanting to complete the fourth of his five daily prayers uninterrupted, Jason continued for the next few minutes without responding to the officer. As soon as he finished, he says he buzzed prison staff over the intercom, explaining that he was done with his prayer and could now eat. The officer who passed by Jason’s cell insisted that he refused his food, Jason says. “I don’t think you’re going to be eating tonight,” said the voice over the intercom, Jason says. So he didn’t. Not until his pre-dawn meal came around 3 a.m. the next morning.

Jason’s experience appears similar to other Muslims incarcerated at Wallens Ridge, a super-maximum security prison that houses about 1,000 prisoners in Big Stone Gap, Va., which is now the subject of a lawsuit against Virginia’s Department of Corrections alleging that the agency will not turn over Muslim prisoners’ official grievances about challenges they may have faced in practicing their faith. The lawsuit states that complaints communicated by Muslim prisoners suggest that staff “blocked Muslim inmates from participating in Ramadan” and allege “physical violence, retaliation, placing inmates in unhygienic conditions (including a Muslim inmate being deprived of access to a functioning toilet and shower), theft of religious books and articles, and the rampant use of derogatory and bigoted language by VADOC staff targeted at Muslim inmates.”

For many Muslim prisoners in Virginia and nationwide, Ramadan has for years entailed not getting enough food, being lucky if food even arrives during a time when you can eat, jumping through hoops to possess religious items as well as fundamental misunderstandings about key components of the faith by prison staff. In some cases, courts have found that such barriers violate federal law. A 2019 report from national advocacy group Muslim Advocates on the accommodations for Muslim prisoners in state prisons found that “despite Muslims constituting a significant and growing share of prisoners, many state departments of correction still have policies that are outdated and don’t accommodate Muslim prisoners who have in turn “faced multiple hurdles in obtaining basic accommodations for their devotional practices, holidays, burial practices, and religious diet requirements.” National advocates want greater transparency around the hurdles incarcerated Muslims face in practicing their faith as well as for prisons to rectify them; some progressive Muslims are going as far as calling for prison abolition.

“I don’t expect every officer at Wallens Ridge to understand Ramadan or Islam; however, all I ask is that they respect my constitutional right to practice the religion of my choice,” says Jason, a Sunni Muslim, who communicated to TIME via phone and email while in restrictive housing, where he was placed in mid-April. Jason describes his cell as the “size of an average bathroom, maybe smaller” and says he is typically alone for almost 24 hours a day, only communicating with other prisoners by yelling through thin walls next to him or through the air ventilation system. (Wallens Ridge’s restrictive housing is the subject of another lawsuit filed by the ACLU, which alleges it’s abuse of solitary confinement. The Virginia Department of Corrections maintains that it does not use “solitary confinement” and says all prisoners in restrictive housing are allowed to be outside their cell for at least four hours a day.)

Virginia’s Department of Corrections spokesperson Lisa Kinney stressed the importance of protecting the privacy of prisoners in a comment emailed to TIME. “If these types of records were not exempted from public disclosure, the Department would have to provide them to any requester, regardless of the entity who sought them and heedless of any evident purpose underlying that request,” Kinney said.

Religious Diet and Possessions

Issues around religious diet are the most common accommodation problem that Muslim prisoners alleged in federal lawsuits, according to Muslim Advocates. These grievances include everything from Ramadan meals to regular ones throughout the year that fail to provide halal options.

“They might bring you food at 3 a.m. one morning; then the next morning it might come at 5 a.m.,” says Sean Wallace, another Muslim prisoner at Wallens Ridge. During Ramadan, Muslims have two key meals: Suhoor, which is eaten before the pre-dawn prayer, and Iftar, after sunset. To keep their fast, they cannot eat in-between the pre-dawn and sunset time for prayer. That’s why it’s so frustrating for prisoners when correctional officers don’t deliver their food on time. “If they don’t bring it by (the pre-dawn prayer), I just won’t eat,” Wallace says.

Even when Muslim prisoners do get food on time, the portions the facility gives them may not be enough for the average person to sustain themselves during a fast; they are the same portions as any regular meal given to non-fasting prisoners despite the fact that those who are fasting do not eat lunch, according to Wallace and Jason.

Wallace describes a recent meal as “some watered down gravy and then chunks of processed meat…you don’t know what it is—chicken, beef? You don’t even know if it’s halal. They just bring it and say eat this.”

It’s not just food but also religious possessions and appearance that can be an issue, too. Wallace says prison staff have asked him to “cut his Muhammad beard off” and take off his kufi—a religious head covering—while in the common area. “They say you can’t wear that out here; it’s a wave cap.” When Jason was first placed in restrictive housing last month, he says authorities took his kufi as well as his prayer rug. He has since been praying on a towel, he says.

Above all, it’s hard to stay spiritual during Ramadan when correctional officers test your patience. “They come in your cell, tear it to pieces—not looking for anything—knock all your hygiene items on the floor, stuff like that, just to make you uncomfortable,” Wallace says. “On top of that, we’re fasting and trying to remain peaceful, you know, so it’s kind of hard to deal with this shit.”

Asghar Goraya, president of Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia, which is subcontracted by the Virginia Department of Corrections to work with state prisons including Wallens Ridge, says that some of the allegations made by Muslim prisoners—particularly those around food and receiving it on time during Ramadan—broadly line up with the issues they have heard. “From my experience, I would say it’s all true,” Goraya says. He has heard accounts of the evening Ramadan meal given to prisoners up to two hours late and of Muslim prisoners receiving their pre-dawn meal after sunrise.

Adnan Khan, who spent 16 years incarcerated in a county jail and three state prisons in California before being released in 2019, recalls food frequently coming at the wrong time during Ramadan. In some cases, his food was even tampered with. “I’ve had frozen patties, like literally frozen patties. And I’ve worked in the kitchen before and I know that doesn’t happen unless there’s some form of intent behind it,” Khan says.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my Quran tossed under my bed,” Khan says. And then there is just plain verbal abuse. “Just the language that they use, right? Like, ‘eff-ing Muslim’, and that’s just normal,” Khan says.

While Khan blames correctional officers for doling out harsh treatment—the real issue is systemic in his eyes. “Impunity is probably like the best friend of the carceral system…People aren’t taking cell phone footage of abuse,” he says. “It’s a system that’s set up to allow and continue the abuse. No one’s stopping it.” Khan adds that he did not file official grievances because he feared reprisals and repercussions.

Jason usually has some “tricks of the trade” to keep himself occupied while fasting, like reading the Quran or listening to Islamic lectures. But even that can only go so far. Jason says he has broken his fast twice since being in restrictive housing. “I hate to do that but sometimes I don’t have a choice because there’s only so much reading I can do to take my mind off of my hunger pangs,” he says.

Wallens Ridge refused to comment on Jason and Wallace’s individual concerns but noted that any prisoner “aggrieved by the manner in which Ramadan is or has been conducted at Wallens Ridge State Prison would certainly be free to file suit on their own behalf.”

A possible violation of federal rights

Gay Gardner, a senior adviser for the nonprofit Interfaith Action for Human Rights, has received numerous complaints detailing what she says are abusive and allegedly unlawful treatment by Wallens Ridge staff towards Muslim prisoners. Which is why in April, she sued Virginia’s Department of Corrections with help from Muslim Advocates alleging that the agency refused to share official grievances Muslims at Wallens Ridge had filed about their ability to practice their faith and any hostility they may have faced as a result of it as well as failure to provide documents reflecting which prisoners had requested the ability to participate in Ramadan—information she had unsuccessfully tried to uncover through a public records request. “If everything is done appropriately and if inmates are being treated humanely, then there shouldn’t be any resistance to outside oversight and to meaningful transparency,” Gardner says.

Kinney, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections, notes that the lawsuit “does not directly challenge” any facility’s Ramadan accommodations but instead focuses on the question of “whether the Department properly declined to provide inmate names and grievances to an outside individual in the context of a public records request, without those inmates’ knowledge, consent, or approval.”

Federal law carves out special considerations for religious freedoms, including those for prisoners, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which covers incarcerated people in federal prisons, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which covers those in state prisons. They are supposed to help protect prisoners from negative health effects or discipline that may occur as a result of practicing their faith. But states still vary greatly in the protections they provide.

Matthew Callahan, a senior attorney with Muslim Advocates, says if substantiated, many of the Muslim prisoners’ complaints reported to them, including from Wallens Ridge, would likely violate federal laws that require prisons to accommodate religious practices.

RLUIPA—the main law used to protect state prisoners’ religious freedoms—works on a case-by-case basis, says Chris Pagliarella, who teaches at Yale Law School’s Free Exercise Clinic. But he notes that “the more prison systems in our country that can accommodate Ramadan, the higher the burden on” any state to show why they cannot.”

If the government is going to restrict religious exercise, Pagliarella says, then it has to have a “darn good,” specific and “important government interest” in addition to proving how a particular religious exercise would undermine such an interest. And if it does have such a reason, it can only use the least restrictive possible action to curtail a prisoner’s ability to practice. The Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas would be permitted to keep a half-inch beard despite the prison’s security concerns that beards may be used to hide contraband. “It’s easy to say I’m worried about contraband. It’s a lot harder to say: the only way I can prevent contraband is making this man shave his fist length beard, rather than run a comb through it, rather than do other kinds of surveillance,” Pagliarella says.

Muslim prisoners reached a favorable settlement in a federal court case in Alaska and won another federal court case in Michigan after alleging that prisons denied them an adequate Ramadan diet that complied with federal health guidelines for caloric standards. Both were “stunning victories,” says SpearIt, a law professor at Texas Southern University and expert on litigation involving Muslim prisoners. In Michigan, the court ruled in prisoner’s favor and as part of Alaska’s settlement, Muslim prisoners were entitled to meals consisting of at least 3,000 average daily calories during Ramadan.

One partial solution to navigating the nuances involved in Islam and Ramadan could be for prisons to hire a Muslim Chaplain. “You can certainly have miscommunications around the finer details of when (prisoners) can eat, when they can’t eat, what kind of meal they need,” says Tricia Pethic, a former Muslim prison chaplain at New York State’s Department of Corrections. “That is where I think a Muslim chaplain is a good investment for a correctional facility because you will A cut down on grievances and B cut down on lawsuits.”

While the Virginia’s Department of Corrections has an imam serving multiple state prisons, including a chaplain via the Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia who typically visits Wallens Ridge once a month, Goraya says says its impact is limited. Goraya says he finds upper management to be sincere and his group has trained about 4,000 staff (mostly correctional officers, counselors and wardens) about Islam. But he says that only lasted from around 2009 through 2018 because of “budget issues.” (Virginia’s Department of Corrections spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about ending the trainings).

And crucially, he feels engagement with higher level employees doesn’t always trickle down, pointing out that prison staff is overwhelmingly white in contrast to the mostly Black prison population.

For some Muslims, no amount of reform or prison programming can fix the inherent trauma of incarceration. “Goodness and humanity cannot exist in prison, especially coming from correctional staff, because then it wouldn’t be a prison,” Khan says. Progressive Muslim American groups like Chicago-based Believers Bail Out are raising awareness around prison abolition and ramped up fundraising efforts in Ramadan to bail out Muslims in pre-trial incarceration and provide supplies for those behind bars.

In the meantime, many incarcerated Muslims struggle to practice their faith. “This is ridiculous. I mean, it’s 2021, and these guys are still fighting to have basic accommodations for Ramadan…trying to do something positive with their life,” SpearIt says. “We’re blocking them from practicing even though it has all these benefits when it comes to rehabilitation…and that’s just, you know; it’s a shame.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com.

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