x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hopes and prayers: Ramadan in Dubai jail

Prayer is never more central to a Muslim prisoner’s life than during the holy month – it helps when the inmates reflect on the traditonal family life they are missing because of their crimes while one says his conversion to Islam has helped him cope with jail life.

Inmates work in a carpenttry shop at the Dubai Central Jail. Sammy Dallal / The National
Inmates work in a carpenttry shop at the Dubai Central Jail. Sammy Dallal / The National

For prisoners in Dubai Central Jail, prayer is never more important than when it is performed during Ramadan.

At least five times a day the inmates gather in their communal chamber, as it is known, place down their mats in the direction of Mecca and follow their imam in prayer.

In one of the men's wings, which are made up of ten rooms of six, the imam has a very unusual story. The 43-year-old from India entered jail as a Hindu 11 years go after being found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death.

Now, with his almost waist-length greying beard, he leads the prayers in his wing, reciting parts of the Quran he has memorised in the past decade. He does not know what his future holds but says his conversion has helped him cope.

"I was brought up in Bombay and before I was a Hindu. I became a Muslim in jail, 11 years ago. Islam is a language that gives us everything.

"I saw people going for prayers five times a day and I was really impressed. I wanted to learn what this was about. I read all the books.

"To believe in one God, Allah, is good. In Hinduism there are a lot of gods. For Muslims there is one God and whatever you want you ask him. My son and my wife are also now Muslim."

Over the years he has memorised 10 of the 30 juz, or parts, into which the Quran is divided, despite not speaking or understanding Arabic. This fact, he says, does not affect his faith or ability to be an imam.

"I can read the Quran but I can't read Arabic," he laughs. "I go to people to translate. At the beginning, one day there wasn't anyone for the prayer and people told me to go up, as imam. It was from Allah, I wasn't scared."

Religion plays a major role in the way the jail operates throughout the year. There are Quran classes and competitions at which the inmates learn to recite passages by heart.

But as well as providing some comfort for the prisoners, at times their religion can be a stark reminder of the life they the should be living, the life they used to live outside the jail walls.

During Ramadan, in particular, their faith can provoke painful memories of what they are missing.

"I am used to being with mama and all my family," says a 32-year-old Emirati woman who was sentenced to nine years in 2008 for a financial crime. "We pray here more but it is hard for us because we have big Ramadan traditions of all being together."

The prisoners are able to stay in touch with their families and use the prison pay phone as often as they like during the day. They earn money to buy phone cards by working in a number of workshops including a sewing and knitting group that makes cuddly toys and clothing to sell.

"I call my parents all the time," says the woman, who has a master's degree is sales and marketing. "I am their only daughter. I miss them very much in here, and it can be harder in Ramadan."

Despite the sadness, she says, there is a strong sense of family during the holy month. "We don't feel the difference between Muslims and non-Muslims. At the time of prayer, if they are watching a movie, they reduce the volume.

"We share in the cafeteria, we try to act as family."

First Lieutenant Fatima Mohammed Al Maazmi, the head of sentence execution, follow ups and women's welfare, says it is mostly business as usual in the women's wing during Ramadan, but there is one noticeable difference.

"There is no violence. In this month there is no violence at all."

During the final 10 days of Ramadan the Muslim inmates are allowed to take time out from their paying jobs and instead focus solely on their religion.

They can take part in all-day Quran and prayer groups. Throughout the rest of the month their eating schedules are adjusted accordingly and they fast the same as any Muslim outside jail.

The schedules of the non-Muslims remains largely the same with only slight adjustments to their eating, exercising and working routines.

"It's not about being more sensitive," says Maj Adel Al Hallawi, director of supplies and services at the General Department of Correctional Institutions, which runs the prison. "We have to take care of them because the holy month has its own characteristics. But a sentence is a sentence."

For all of the prisoners, regardless of their religion, Ramadan offers a quiet relief from the usual noise of a busy jail with more than 3,000 inmates.

"It's much more quiet in the jail because 70 per cent of the inmates are asleep," says a non-Muslim Briton serving 10 years for drug smuggling. When you have 1,500 men aged between 18 and 50, it's like a football crowd, noisy. Ramadan is peaceful."

For certain prisoners, the possibility of early release during the holy month or Eid Al Fitr is understandably something that can occupy their minds for the remaining 11 months of the year.

Each year, the Rulers of all the emirates announce publicly the early release of prisoners who fit specific criteria.

"People constantly talk about it," says the Briton. "It is the main source of rumours and stories. In my experience people who have finished 50 per cent of their sentences, when it comes to Ramadan they go home, several hundred of them."

The 58-year-old father of one, who pleaded guilty in court, is now experiencing his fifth Ramadan behind bars.

Each year he has witnessed a number of his fellow inmates get an early release to be reunited with their families in time for Eid.

"Every year people think 'this year the releases will be bigger', but it hasn't changed since I've been here. Everyone in jail is always talking about afrage [Arabic for release].

"When they leave, of course, it's happy. Then everybody takes their blanket, and pillows, wash basin, coffee and radio."

From the little information released publicly by the Rulers' offices, it is usually prisoners serving sentences for minor offences and financial crimes who receive the pardons. Prisoners who cannot be released until they have paid their debts can have their debts either written off completely or paid on their behalf.

"By the next big Eid in 2014 I will have served four years and nine months," says the Briton, hopefully. "It is 14 months and one week away, not that I'm counting."

All of the rehabilitation courses continue during Ramadan, although for a slightly shortened time. The car mechanic courses still run, as do the woodwork workshops and computer courses. Although many of the prisoners are fasting, the courses still provide a welcome break from the monotony of prison life.

Another prisoner, a 37 year old from Pakistan, is spending his 14th Ramadan in Dubai's largest jail. He is serving a sentence for murder.

During the month, he says, the Muslim prisoners put more emphasis on forgiveness but nothing can help them to forget what they are missing.

"It's different because we are not with our families. But now I'm here for a long time with these people, we are like a family now. We buy phone cards and we call our family. I have three kids in Karachi.

"All month I am asking God for forgiveness. People are more peaceful. But of course I miss my family.

"Everyone misses their family, it is hard."