by Hayy Yaqzan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 5, Shawwal, 1439)
The observance of Ramasan and ‘Id al-Fitr tends to bring the Muslim community together in a way that is sorely missed throughout the rest of the year. However, for some Muslims, this time can serve as a painful reminder of how they are neglected by the community on the one hand, and exposed to some of the ugliest forms of Islamophobia on the other. One such group are those languishing in “correctional” institutions across North America.
On May 25, just a week into Ramadan, two news reports incidentally emerged on the same day to describe the discriminatory conditions faced by Muslim prisoners in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Anchorage, Alaska.
In the Canadian case, two prisoners complained about struggling to get adequate food and access to spiritual guidance during the month of Ramadan. They spoke to the CBC on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from prison staff if they were to be identified. One of them had not even been convicted of any crime at the time.
In the American case, a federal judge ordered the Alaska prison to stop offering two Muslim prisoners only pork-based meals to break their fast. This happened only after the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) raised the alarm and filed a lawsuit referring to the prison’s practice as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The United States, “land of the free and home of the brave,” holds nearly a quarter of the global prison population, and an estimated 10– 15% of these prisoners (around 300,000) are Muslim. But an often overlooked is that in Canada (as of 2013), Muslims make up 3.2% of the general population but 6% of prisoners. As of February 2016, there were nearly 1,000 Muslims behind bars in Ontario alone.
These are eyebrow-raising numbers, but the day-to-day experiences of Muslim prisoners and their families in Canada are even more concerning.
A CBC report published in December 2017 indicates that prisoners’ complaints about access to religious services were on the rise across Canada, even though the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to such accommodation. Advocacy groups have pointed out that this reported increase was in spite of the fact that many prisoners may not report their concerns due to fear of reprisals.
And if they do complain, they often face unreasonable delays in having the complaint addressed. In Alberta in late-2015, two Muslim prisoners filed complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission over discrimination they faced at Grande Cache Institution, a remote federal prison located 445 km west of Edmonton. They maintained that between 2013 and 2015, they were “picked on” — in the words of a parole officer who witnessed one incident — by the Catholic chaplain in charge of the prison’s chapel.
As reported by the CBC, the chaplain would cut short the Muslims’ Friday prayers, and caused the two prisoners to face “institutional discipline” after they refused to call him “Father.” They were also refused access to the chapel’s washroom to perform ablution before the prayers. In the absence of a regular imam at Grande Cache, one of the prisoners started to lead the prayers, for which he was labelled a “troublemaker.”
And according to one of the prisoners, on ‘Id, the Muslims were “in the middle of our celebrations and [the chaplain] kicked us out of the chapel because there was a Catholic band practice… our religion was trumped because of band practice.” Although the prison improved the Muslims’ access to religious services in the years that followed, some of the disheartened prisoners stopped going to the chapel completely to avoid confronting the chaplain.
The absence of Muslim chaplains in prisons can be a cause of distress for Muslim prisoners as they try to access religious services and spiritual guidance, but also as they strive to come to terms with the crimes they have committed and prepare to rehabilitate themselves into society. This, after all, is the stated end-purpose of the entire “correctional” system.
However, this did not stop Canada’s former government from “respecting taxpayer dollars” by privatizing the chaplaincy system at the federal level in 2012, effectively ending funding for non-Christian prison chaplains across the country. Tellingly, the Toronto Star reported that the news of Ramzy Ajem, the Muslim chaplain for Millhaven Institution, imminently leaving his role after these cuts caused one prisoner, a member of the Toronto 18, to break down and cry.
And though most Muslim prisoners in Canada can eventually expect to be released, the experiences of some can end more tragically. Such was the case of Soleiman Faqiri, a 30-year-old with a history of schizophrenia who died in his cell in Lindsay, Ontario in December 2016, just 11 days after he was arrested for assault and uttering threats. His family had been prevented from seeing him since his arrest, and he was awaiting transfer to a mental health facility.
According to a coroner’s report released seven months after the incident, Faqiri’s body showed 50 signs of “blunt impact trauma,” indicating that he had been severely beaten by prison guards for not restraining himself — even though his hands were cuffed, his legs were put in irons, a spit hood was placed over his head, and he was pepper-sprayed.
In late-2017, Faqiri’s family was informed that there were “no grounds to lay criminal charges” on any of the guards involved in Faqiri’s death, though some of the “correctional staff” had been suspended.
This is a glimpse into the experiences of Muslims in Canadian prisons, on top of the generally dehumanizing treatment and culture that all prisoners are exposed to. It does not matter that Ontario’s most “progressive” prison, the Toronto South Detention Centre, has two special “footbaths” for Muslims when prisoners can be on lockdown for 17 straight days with a cellmate, little or nothing to read, no showers, no phone calls, no family visits, no exercise, and no toilet paper unless you get on your knees and beg the guard. In all of this, the Muslim community can — and has a responsibility to — support our “invisible” brothers and sisters in prison.