Rick, an African American and Muslim prisoner, was in a correctional facility in a Midwestern state when he tried to obtain a Quran for worship. His request to the officer in charge was denied. But when he was told the price for it, he was shocked — it was far more than he could afford, and, significantly, was two to three times more expensive than a Bible.
“I just couldn’t afford to buy the Quran, or anything else, for that matter,” he says, as he was denied a Quran multiple times.
Rick, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy, resorted to secretly borrowing a copy of the Quran from another inmate. When guards were passing by, he had to quickly make sure they did not see it.
“The discrimination is so real. All that matters is your background and the color of your skin,” he says.
The United States currently incarcerates more than 2 million people, who are predominantly Black and Latinx, with almost half a million of these people being held on pretrial bond known as bail. Unfortunately, Muslim prisoners, in particular, are largely left out of the conversation. Muslims are overrepresented in state prisons, making up 9 percent. The significant presence of Muslims in prison stands in stark contrast to Muslims’ share of the US population as a whole, which is just 1 percent.
Muslim prisoners face many of the same issues as other incarcerated people, including hindrances to basic necessities and hygiene such as toothpaste, deodorant, or female sanitary products. But they also face unique discriminatory practices, such as lack of fair access to religious material in prisons. This is despite federal laws that require equal access to religious materials. Unfortunately, discrimination in prisons has been a longstanding issue, with multiple lawsuits attempting to resolve this; nevertheless, Muslims continue to face difficulty.
Yet earlier this month, a federal judge affirmed that Jake Angeli, the Capitol rioter known as “Q Shaman,” should be granted his request for organic food while being held in a Washington, DC, jail, citing his religious beliefs. It is puzzling that Angeli’s accommodations were met, not only because the DC jail found no research to show that an organic diet was a tenet of Shamanism — but also because it’s deeply hypocritical given the treatment of so many Muslim prisoners in this country who are denied, among other things, halal food. This demonstrates how so many white practitioners of faith are not just immune to discrimination, but are even awarded favors when it comes to treatment in prison.
Rami Nsour, founding director of the Tayba Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to provide services to those incarcerated, says that providing incarcerated Muslims with the basics necessary to practice their faith is extremely low priority for most prisons.
“If not all basic necessities of hygiene are not afforded to prisoners, and that is not high on the budget list, then religious material is also not going to be high,” said Nsour.
Nsour explains that federal prisons allot a certain amount of money to buy books for the chapel. That means that the cost of practicing one’s religion falls on inmates, who are forced to use money from their prison wages, which can be as low as 5 cents an hour. He explained that a Quran can run $20 in prison. “For some, that might be their whole monthly paycheck. This is for the people who don’t have family or friends on the outside who can purchase a book for them. That is one hurdle,” Nsour adds. In many prisons, Bibles are far more abundant.
Even those who are able to successfully obtain a Quran face issues. Nsour said many prisoners reported to him that their religious books were thrown away after search or destroyed. “In one case, an office stomped on the student’s copy of the Quran. The student retrieved the copy of the Quran from the garbage can and the officer’s boot print was still clearly on the Quran,” Nsour explains. “We had one Muslim incarcerated student who told us that 17 prisoners were using one copy of the Quran. Note that the average Muslim house in the US probably has about four copies per household member,” he adds.
According to Rick, even obtaining something simple as a prayer mat was looked down on and not provided. “When trying to pray, we are not allowed to. The guards think we are making some moves to be part of a gang, and they don’t let us pray,” Rick explains. He tells Vox how guards feel threatened with the growing number of people becoming Muslims and how the “technique” is scary to them. “It’s like we’re doing something abnormal for them to think we’re being Muslims,” he says. “The white-centric world just criminalizes us for who we are. Whether I’m wanting to pray alone or in congregation, it’s a no.”
Unfortunately, prayer is not the only thing Muslim prisoners are denied. Fasting and breaking the fast is also a struggle for many. Rick tells us how he has needed food but was not given the time or resources to start or break the fast in a timely fashion. During Ramadan, Muslims fast before sunrise until sunset; with the dates of the holiday changing each year, the time also shifts. “When I’m confined, the guards don’t even give me any food when I need to start my fast since sometimes it’s as early as 4 in the morning,” he explains.
Similarly, Aishah — who was incarcerated for three years in a prison on the East Coast — recounts multiple forms of religious discrimination when she was incarcerated. She tells Vox how women used to fast long days during Ramadan and at times were denied iftar, the breaking of the fast, simply because “the kitchen didn’t have food.” She says when a local mosque used to donate food, many Muslims were denied that food and told they had to pay for it. When it came to accessing Qurans, they were extremely limited in number and not readily available. Instead, a Bible was offered.
“It was clear that they were trying to make our lives more difficult because we were Muslim,” Aishah says. She also mentioned how churches used to donate food and that Christians readily accessed the food but Muslims were denied.
Even though federal laws are in place to protect individuals from religious discrimination, Muslim prisoners like Rick and Aishah are either charged more for resources or denied it altogether. Muslim Advocates, a group of lawyers based in Washington, DC, reports there are rampant cases where many Muslim prisoners are simply not listened to due to their religion.
“All too often, Americans who practice Islam or other faiths that are less common in this country face discrimination from those who are misinformed or bigoted,” says Matt Callahan, senior staff attorney for Muslim Advocates. “This problem is especially severe in prison, where Muslims are overrepresented and their power to stand up for their rights is weakest. Because of this power imbalance, it is critical that our courts and governments do everything in their power to protect the religious exercise of prisoners.”
But the discrimination goes beyond treatment behind bars. In particular, Black people are twice as likely to be held pretrial as white people. Muslims in pretrial incarceration face an increased risk of victimization, surveillance, and denial of religious freedom in the prison system due to Islamophobia. It also puts those who can’t afford bail at a disadvantage.
Maryam Kashani, one of the cofounders of Believers Bail Out, a community-led nonprofit that aims to bail out Muslims in pretrial incarceration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, explained that funding is required as a mechanism to penalize poverty and promote racism. “Even though the criminal legal system proclaims the principle of innocent until proven guilty, the reality is that people who have not been convicted of any crime can be jailed indefinitely because they can’t afford bail,” she said. “As a result, those in pretrial incarceration can lose their jobs, their children, their homes, and even their lives.”
Kashani explained that she sees Believers Bail Out as a form of zakat, or a tax on wealth, and one of the five pillars of Islam that is outlined in the Quran. It is to help the poor and the needy and for the freeing of enslaved people or captives. “It is in our capacity and our duty as Muslims to be a part of ending this unjust bail system that criminalizes poverty and is inherently racist in nature,” Kashani explains.
Though Rick is now out of prison, he reflects on the time he spent there and how much discrimination he faced. “It is as if I was committing a crime, to be both Muslim and Black,” he said.
Tasmiha Khan has written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Vanity Fair, among others. Find her on Twitter to learn more.