Virginia prisons are making it difficult for Muslim prisoners to observe Ramadan. Muslims around the world observe the month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to sunset. The hours between sunset and dawn are thus a crucial window of time for those observing Ramadan to drink and eat in order to regain strength. As Maryam Saleh reported for The Intercept, in May 2019 civil rights groups—including Muslim Advocates, the Islamic Circle of North America’s Council for Social Justice, and the Virginia Prison Justice Network—sent the Virginia Department of Corrections a letter expressing concern that Muslims in at least two Virginia prisons were being denied basic rights, despite constitutional protections and federal laws around religious freedom.
In one case, Muslim prisoners known to be fasting were not served breakfast before sunrise; in another prison, fasting inmates were forced to wait at least an hour after sunset to receive dinner.
In response, Nimra Azmi, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, called on the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) to “act immediately to safeguard the free exercise rights of its Muslim inmates and allow them to observe Ramadan fully and freely.”
The groups’ letter to the VDOC called for prison staff to improve meal delivery to fasting prisoners and urged training for staff on Ramadan practices.
Muslims make up approximately nine percent of the population in prisons, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey of prison chaplains. As Saleh reported for The Intercept, according to Islamic Circle of North America’s Muslim Prisoners Support Project, Muslim inmates across the US are
“likely to face arbitrary limitations on their religious practice,” including prayer services and access to Islamic education materials. A 2008 report by the US Commission on Civil Rights and Religious Freedom found that, from 1997-2008, Muslims in federal prison filed the greatest number of requests for administrative remedies regarding religious observance.
Maryam Saleh, “Virginia Prisons Putting Up Obstacles to Ramadan Observance,” The Intercept, May 25, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/05/25/ramadan-observance-virginia-prisons/.
“Virginia Prisons Warned of Illegal Policies Preventing Inmates from Observing Ramadan,” Muslim Advocates, May 28, 2019, https://muslimadvocates.org/2019/05/virginia-prisons-warned-of-illegal-policies-preventing-inmates-from-observing-ramadan/.
Evan Goodenow, “Jail Changing Ramadan Meals Policy,” April 30, 2019k Winchester Star, https://www.winchesterstar.com/winchester_star/jail-changing-ramadan-meals-policy/article_af68518b-c63e-5de8-8501-06a195d73320.html.
Student Researcher: Lauren Koenigshofer (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)