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Ramadan behind bars: How one inmate’s fight to fast highlights oversight concerns

Global News with Kim Pate 29 May 2019

The halal breakfast option is some combination of fruit and cereal with a muffin, toast and peanut butter, boiled eggs or French toast, depending on the day. That’s according to the Correctional Service of Canada’s national menu, but Jason Cain wrote a few notes in the margins.

“Everywhere you see cereal, it’s a small 35-gram box,” he wrote — the kind Nestle finds “fits well with the energy needs of a child between six and eight years old.”

CSC can’t comment on Cain’s case due to the Privacy Act, spokesperson Christina Tricomi said in an emailed statement. However, she said, per the national menu, cereal is served “in bulk” in 250-millilitre servings.

Cain wrote another note: if he wants the French toast or the boiled egg, he has to actually cook it, and that’s a problem.

Cain, who is 32 years old and serving a life sentence for murder in Donnacona Institution in Quebec, says he isn’t allowed out of his cell before sunup, which means that during Ramadan, his food options dwindle.

He can store the milk in his cell overnight and hope it isn’t sour by morning, subsist on dry cereal or — worse, he says — skip fasting altogether. At least twice this month, he says he’s been too hungry to keep up his fast.

“As a Muslim, you believe you gain rewards from your days of fasting, you gain blessings,” says Cain.

“God’s looking down, he realizes that this is not my fault, but at the same time, you feel kind of guilty because you’re not able to fulfil your religious requirements (and) you feel like you should be strong enough to.”

Cain isn’t the only inmate who says CSC isn’t abiding by its own religious accommodation policies and making sure inmates observing Ramadan have appropriate food at appropriate times.

Activist El Jones wrote in the Halifax Examiner about allegations that Muslim inmates at Burnside jail are still struggling for adequate food, and Sen. Kim Pate, who is an expert in human rights and criminal justice, says she’s heard of at least three other federal cases like Cain’s this Ramadan.

Their stories illuminate what Pate summarizes as “the lack of insurance by the Correctional Service of Canada that human rights of prisoners are upheld.”

‘They’re basically starving you’

Food is a sore spot for Canadian corrections.

After a 2016 riot at a Saskatchewan penitentiary left one inmate dead and eight others injured, CSC conducted an investigation that correctional investigator Ivan Zinger called “superficial and self-serving.”

Zinger’s office found food shortages, portion sizes and protein allotments were to blame for the riot. Formal complaints made to management just days before it happened focused on the lack of salad and other fresh food, small portions and serving lines that ran out of meals.

In its interim report this year, the Senate committee on human rights shone a similarly grim spotlight on food in prison.

One takeaway? “The quantity of food is severely substandard,” the report read.

The report nods to Cain’s situation: “Food is an issue as well for ethnocultural offenders, especially those with a religious orientation.”

A CSC spokesperson said the organization “is committed to respecting the religious freedom and right of expression of federal inmates of all faiths.”

However, Cain says:

“Imagine you’re already being underfed, then you’re a young Muslim and you’re being fed even less (during Ramadan). They’re basically starving you.”

The problem is about so much more than food, says Idil Abdillahi, an assistant professor at Ryerson University whose work focuses on black life and freedom.

“This is about (the) spiritual and mental health of people staying well in prison,” she says.

“It’s actually more than just a refusal of Islam, it’s a refusal of his existence and his humanity; it’s a refusal of him just living.”

Think about the impact of that type of denial on a person’s psyche, says Abdillahi — especially a person who is incarcerated.

Black, Muslim and jailed in Quebec

Cain is black and Muslim. Not only that, says Abdillahi, but he is black and Muslim in Quebec.

Although Islamophobia is normalized everywhere, she says Quebec, in particular, has a history of racism and Islamophobia. In 2017, a man opened fire at a Quebec City mosque, killing six men and injuring others. And recently, advocates have reported a rise in hate crimes against Muslim women as the province debates a bill that would ban public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work.

“I don’t want us to keep separate the larger systemic issues that are happening in Quebec,” she says. “I want us to see them as playing out within the context of Jason’s story in prison.”

Except if CSC’s lack of assurance that it’s upholding the rights of prisoners is exacerbated by intersections of discrimination — being black, being Muslim — so, too, is the public’s disinterest, Abdillahi says.

There’s this idea that inmates shouldn’t be complaining about their conditions, she says, and “when you’re a black prisoner and when you’re a Muslim prisoner and when you’re a prisoner who’s committed certain kinds of crimes, we become even more judgmental and uncaring and unkind about your access to life and humanity in prison.”

Cain has filed a number of grievances to CSC dating back years. In 2016, when Cain was still incarcerated at Millhaven Institution in Ontario, he filed a complaint about how the prison’s Muslim population was treated. The allegations ranged from a unit manager’s refusal to allow Cain and others access to a microwave to cook their oatmeal before fasting began to hearing their holy month referred to by another corrections employee as “ramascam” to a lack of access to washrooms at night after breaking fast.

Although the grievances were denied at an institutional level, according to documents shared with Global News, they were upheld in part at a national level. Cain received the official response months ago, when he was already incarcerated at Donnacona.

“Institutions must make arrangements to provide Muslim inmates observing the Ramadan fast with sufficient food and drink before sunrise and after sunset,” reads the decision, dated Jan. 18.

“When you read CSC guidelines and legislation on paper, it seems like they understand the seriousness of making sure that religious requirements are fulfilled, but the action is not behind it,” Cain says. “It just does not register down to staff.”

CSC did not respond to questions from Global News about how it ensures practices at individual institutions are in line with national policies. However, Tricomi said meals are prepared in keeping with the Canada Food Guide and that a Muslim representative “was engaged” in developing a diet specific to Muslim needs, including meals for Ramadan.

Focusing less on policy and more on practice

If Cain wants to complain internally, he could file a grievance (again). He isn’t sure he will, given the last grievance didn’t seem to actually prevent the issue from recurring. Cain says even just asking guards or people in the kitchen at Donnacona for accommodation seems to notch up tension levels.

Pate says she can understand the reluctance. Frankly, she says, he shouldn’t have to file another grievance given the last decision was national and should have applied to all institutions across the country.

CSC did not respond to questions from Global News about the countrywide implementation of policies. However, Tricomi said in a statement that staff are required to take diversity and cultural competency training and regions are guided by a “regional ethnocultural advisory committee.”

Cain would have grounds for a human rights complaint, Pate says — although even that is an action that would likely mean changes for Muslim inmates in the future, not Cain.

Human rights complaints citing Islam that are lodged against CSC make up 23 per cent of the total non-employee complaints filed to the Canadian Human Rights Commission between 2009 and 2018. Inmates who identify as Muslim make up less than six per cent of the federal inmate population. There are 240 self-identifying Muslim inmates in Quebec, according to a CSC spokesperson.

In total, the commission accepted 167 complaints citing religion. The most frequent religion cited was “Indigenous spirituality” in 42 cases, while Islam came second with 39 complaints.

While there is no way to know with certainty that each of these complaints was filed by inmates due to the commission’s tracking method, a spokesperson told Global News it’s “a fair assumption” given they are service complaints and CSC’s service is delivered primarily to inmates.

If we know the policies exist but inmates say they’re not being adhered to, maybe it’s time to shift focus, says Abdillahi.

“Maybe it’s time we start focusing directly on the practices inside.”