Jailhouse Fast

Ramadan in Heilbronn Prison

Ramadan, a very special time in the religious calendar for many Muslims, began in early October. Steffen Felger reports on what Muslim prisoners in Heilbronn, Germany, do during Ramadan

The prison covers a large area, right in the centre of the city of Heilbronn in the state of Baden-Württemberg. More than four hundred men are serving mostly long-term sentences behind its high walls. In the Baden-Württemberg prison system, Heilbronn prison specialises in taking in Turks and Kosovo Albanians, but there are also Arabs from countries like Algeria and Tunisia there.

One of the Muslim prisoners is Nadir Cengiz, a 32-year-old Turk who was born in Germany. He's been in prison in Heilbronn for the last eight years, and he has seven years left of his sentence still to serve – "probably" he says cautiously. Cengiz – a stocky man who keeps himself in peak physical condition – is spokesman for the other Turkish prisoners in Heilbronn. For the prison social worker, Petra Krönke, he's also the person she deals with when issues related to Islam come up.

Krönke's offer to make a cup of tea for us in her office is immediately refused by Cengiz: "I can't," he says, "because of Ramadan." And that's our topic: Ramadan in prison. "Ramadan and prison," says Cengiz, "both are restrictions on one's activities. Both of them are trying to get us to rethink the way we live our lives."

Easily keeping the fast

But he doesn't see the restrictions of Ramadan as a punishment, even in prison. It's not hard to keep the fast here, says Nadir Cengiz. Breakfast is given out the previous evening, so that the prisoners can eat it in their cells. That way, even when Ramadan falls in summer, they can eat breakfast before daybreak.

In Heilbronn, they can even break the fast together, since there are kitchens on each floor. "That isn't possible everywhere," says Cengiz, who spent time in two other prisons while he was on remand. In that respect Heilbronn is ideal. Many of the Muslim prisoners really appreciate the fact that they can celebrate the daily end of the fast after sunset together, just like other Muslims to outside the prison.

Cengiz, who spends his days working in the prison printing shop as a typesetter, says that not all the Muslim prisoners keep the fast: "Some take the fast very seriously," he says, "others less so. Some quote the rule that the fast doesn't apply in an emergency situation, and so they don't fast."

Religious rituals in prison

Throughout the year, Muslim clergy visit the prisoners twice a month and pray with them. Staff of the Turkish state religious authority, Ditib, who come from the Turkish consulate in Stuttgart, alternate with the imam of the Fatih mosque in Heilbronn. For some prisoners, these services are something new; they've learnt about the rituals for the first time in prison.

"Some join in," says Cengiz. "Others just turn up and sit there." For him, it has been a new experience to pray together with Muslims from Kosovo or from Arab countries. That's unusual outside the prison.

For more than ten years, the Bairam festival at the end of Ramadan has been a highlight for the Muslims in Heilbronn prison in an otherwise uneventful year. They are given a day off work and can celebrate the festival together. Both the Turkish consulate in Stuttgart and the Fatih mosque in Heilbronn send representatives.

Döner behind bars

Cengiz is especially pleased at the fact that the Turkish food is distributed on that day. "In the past we've had döner kebab, dates or lahmacun," he says. "We don't normally get that. But it depends each year on what the Muslim community in Heilbronn donates."

Cengiz prepares the celebration together with Petra Krönke and the prison management. "I have a lot of free time here," he says, "and this is a welcome change. I've always enjoyed organising things." He also finds it important "that my fellow Muslims realise that it's worthwhile showing some commitment."

For the rest of the year, the prison kitchen takes account of Muslim dietary laws, but the Muslim prisoners still have to do without most of their traditional dishes, unless they get some in the food packets their families send. Cengiz finds a shame that the food shop in the prison, which is supplied by a major German supermarket company, doesn't have products like suçuk und pastırma.

Crucial level of tolerance and respect

This issue may become more important, says prison director Ulrich Schlicher. At a meeting he attended recently in a prison in the state of Brandenburg, he discovered that relatives were no longer allowed to send food parcels to prisoners there. Security checks on the parcels took up too much staff time. For that reason, Schlicher too is tempted to change the rules.

In spite of that, Nadir Cengiz finds himself well looked after in Heilbronn, as far as his needs as a Muslim are concerned. He says that, for many of the prisoners there serving their long sentences, religion offers an important support, "whether one is Muslim or Christian." But he points out that it depends very much on the individual prison management as to how much religious issues are taken into consideration and how much respect and tolerance they show.

He regrets that he can't attend the mosque in Heilbronn. But that makes him all the more impressed that Schlicher and Krönke have both done so. It was a sign of respect for the imam, who, in addition to his normal job and his voluntary work as imam, also visits the Muslims in Heilbronn prison once a month.

Steffen Felger

© Qantara.de 2005

Trnalsated from the German by Michael Lawton

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