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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 10:15 GMT
Celebrating Eid behind bars
By Cindi John
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

The table is laden with the traditional sumptuous Eid fare: rice, curries, chutneys and other delicacies jostle for space with the cakes and sweets which for Muslims are an integral part of Eid celebrations.

Leicester Prison Imam Mohammad Alam with Muslim inmates
Mohammad Alam visits Muslim prisoners once a week

The guests tuck in enthusiastically and small talk fills the air. It could be any of hundreds of parties which take place around the UK during the season following the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.

But what singles out this particular Eid feast is the absence of women and children and the lack of smart, new clothes which Muslims take pride in wearing to such events.

The bars on the window also suggest that this is an Eid party with a difference.

It's not open to the general public and friends of family of the guests are not invited - indeed the party venue can be reached only after negotiating a maze of imposing heavy steel gates which are unlocked and then carefully re-locked each time.

For this is the Prison Chapel at Leicester Prison.

The 30 or so prisoners present are a small fraction of the nearly 5,500 Muslims in jail in England and Wales - they make up 8% of the prison population compared with just under 3% Muslims in the UK as a whole.

The Eid feast at Leicester jail has been co-ordinated by the prison's imam, Mohammad Alam, and the Iqra Trust's Muslim prisoners' welfare group.

Mr Alam, a teacher, spends two hours a week working with Muslim prisoners at the jail.

He says the regime in Leicester is a good one by prison standards.

"The inmates are very pleased because they had a chance to celebrate Eid and the governor listened and he's a very positive man.

"In many other establishments they just don't bother," Mr Alam told BBC News Online.

'Publicity stunt'

Muslims are the most racially-diverse faith group in the prison population and those in Leicester reflect that fact.

Passages from the Koran after the feast are recited first in the original Arabic by an Asian inmate and then in English by a black inmate.

A number of white prisoners area also among those celebrating.

Naid, who has been at Leicester for 16 months, thinks facilities for Muslims during Ramadan and Eid have vastly improved under the prison's new governor.

Make sure next time you are outside to celebrate Eid - that would make me very happy
Steve Turner, Prison governor

"Last year it was very bad but this year has been good because a Muslim has been cooking the food," he says.

Mohammed, 43, said his stint at Leicester was his second time in prison. He agreed the arrangements for Muslims over Ramadan and Eid had been good.

"This year we had packed meals to take overnight in the cells so we could have a meal before dawn and fast through the day and then evening we had a decent meal prepared for us by a Muslim inmate."

But another inmate, Reuben, was more cynical about the facilities laid on for Muslims.

"As much as I appreciate the food and that I can't help but think that it's a publicity stunt really," he said.

However, Rfakat, originally from Glasgow says Muslims in jails in other parts of Britain have a much more difficult time.

"Over in Scotland they're still getting used to having Muslims in prison, they don't really have a lot. I was really quite surprised how much effort they put in the facilities for the Muslims here.

"In Scotland it'd be a case of: 'Eid? You're lucky you're getting your Friday prayers'", he said.

And Fares who is nearing the end of his sentence agrees the prison authorities have made an effort to help Muslims during Ramadan and Eid: "This is my first Eid in prison, I didn't find it that hard because we had a lot of options, so it wasn't that bad," he said.

'Don't come back'

Leicester Prison's governor, Steve Turner, hopes that for Fares and the others it will be the last Eid they spend in prison.

"Eid is not about individuals but families. I hope you don't come back and celebrate Eid in prison again.

"Make sure next time you are outside to celebrate Eid - that would make me very happy," he said, addressing the inmates during the celebration.

Mr Turner, who's been governor at Leicester since October, told BBC News Online he believed it was important people should be allowed to follow their religion in jail.

"People are incarcerated in this prison because they've been sent here by the judiciary. The penalty is that they lose their liberty not that they can't celebrate their religion," he said.

The governor said attitudes to non-Christian religions had been transformed during his 29 years in the Prison Service.

"Before if you weren't C of E or RC there was nothing done for you. But nowadays it's vastly changed, the only thing that's still with us unfortunately is over-crowding," he says.

Re-offending

The over-crowding means facilities are stretched at Leicester, a category B prison which caters mainly for prisoners on remand.

Leicester Prison
Leicester Prison is home to about 300 inmates
Imam Mohammad Alam says in spite of the progressive regime, there are still difficulties, not least the lack of a dedicated mosque and the limited amount of time the men can spend praying and studying the Koran.

In the last decade the number of Muslims has more than doubled making them the second-fastest growing faith group in jails in England and Wales.

Home Office figures show Muslims are most likely to be serving sentences of between 5 and 10 years. And like all prison inmates there is a high rate of re-offending.

Mr Alam believes that more time spent studying their faith could translate into lower re-offending rates.

"Some Muslims want to get closer to their faith and if you don't give them the opportunity, they'll go out, commit another crime and come back again."

Keeping Muslims out of jail is an issue well overdue for attention, agrees Salah el Hassan of the Iqra Trust.

Mr el Hassan who is also general secretary of the National Council - an umbrella body for Muslim prisoners' organisations - which represents the Muslim community on the Prison Service Chaplaincy Council, says it's a matter they plan to tackle seriously soon.

"Over last few years we have provided training for imams but over next few years the council will be concentrating on resettlement and reintegrating offenders back into the community," he says.


SEE ALSO:
Reflections on Ramadan
25 Nov 03  |  UK
Realities of Ramadan
27 Oct 03  |  South East Wales
Muslim prisoners 'second-class'
25 Jun 01  |  UK News


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