Sharjah: For the nearly 2,000 individuals at the Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishments who are looking to get back on the path of piety and righteousness, Ramadan is a deeply introspective and uplifting month.
Inside its precincts, prayer is never more important than during Ramadan for the inmates. In fact, religion plays an important role throughout their period of incarceration. But it is in Ramadan, in particular, that their faith reminds them of what they are missing and how they can aspire to an ethical life.
Colonel Ahmad Suhail, director-general of Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishments, tells Gulf News in an exclusive interview how their Ramadan programme gives the inmates a positive push, bringing them together in a collective experience of harmony and hope.
The inmates get together for group iftars, attend Taraweeh prayers, and enjoy taking part in contests, cultural events and entertainment such as chess, table tennis and electronic games.
The department, he said, is keen on investing in the rehabilitation of inmates and supporting them psychologically, socially and morally so that they can accept their reality and have the will and tools to restart their lives positively once they are released.
Each year, the Rulers of all emirates announce the early release of prisoners who meet specific criteria.
The Ruler’s pardon is usually meant for prisoners serving sentences for minor offences. Prisoners who cannot be released until they have paid their debts can have their debts either written off completely or paid on their behalf.
In light of the Year of Giving, the department launched an initiative called Sand [Support], for inmates’ families that offers vocational skill courses such as cooking, sewing, make-up or hairstyling etc so they can earn while their breadwinner is in jail. The establishment also tries to find jobs for the inmates after release based on the skills they have acquired in the prison.
Captain Khalfan Salem Bin Shaqwa, director of Education and Rehabilitation branch, told Gulf News that all the rehabilitation courses continue during Ramadan, except for changed timings for some.
Although many prisoners fast, the courses provide them a welcome break from the monotony of prison life.
In Ramadan, the department hosts preachers [speaking different languages] from the Islamic Affairs Department in Sharjah and Dar Zayed, and inmates benefit from these talks.
“Ramadan is a great opportunity for Muslim prisoners to strengthen their path to goodness,” says Capt Bin Shaqwa. “Ramadan helps speed up a prisoner’s journey to reform.”
The religious duties including offering regular prayers, reading the Quran, understanding the role of faith in worldly life and observing the fast helps to enhance their rehabilitation.
The schedule of non-Muslim prisoners remains largely the same with only slight adjustments in their food, exercise and work routines.
For many prisoners, the possibility of early release during Ramadan or Eid Al Fitr is understandably something that occupies their minds for the remaining 11 months of the year, he said, and the Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishment programmes aim to reform inmates or even reduce their sentences.
“We offer a number of programmes and cater to all nationalities,” he said.
“It is our duty to also follow up on those who have been released and make sure they are doing all right.
“We try as much as we can, with outside partners, of course, to help them become contributing members of society by cooperating with them and helping them find jobs,” said Capt Bin Shaqwa.
The establishment has signed an agreement with the Sharjah Social Development Department and the Sharjah Economic Development Department to help family members of inmates learn vocational courses and upon completion of the course, grant them a licence which enables them to enter the business market.
The inmates can also display their works in exhibitions organised by either the Social Development Department or the Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishment and the income will go to the inmates’ families.
Inmates speak of their desires
Abdul Aziz Abed Bilal, Emirati, 40, is now observing his sixth Ramadan behind bars.
Each year, he has witnessed a number of his fellow inmates get an early release and reunite with their families in time for Eid.
“Every year, people hope that the numbers of prisoners being released [pardoned] will be higher,” says Bilal.
“Everyone in jail is always talking about pardon.”
Of course, he is happy for those who leave behind the precincts and reunite with their families and the occasion accentuates his desire to also go back to his family.
“I am used to being with them [my family],” says the 40-year-old, who was sentenced to 50 years in jail in 2010 for an armed robbery at a petrol pump.
In 2011, the sentence was reduced to 20 years and in 2014, it was again reduced to 12 years.
In prison, Bilal says he has learnt to pray more and he is acutely aware of how much he would like to get back to his earlier days.
He often thinks of how it would be to once again spend Ramadan with his family. “We have had a Ramadan tradition of being together,” he says.
“I miss my family and my four children [aged 17, 14, 12 and 9] very much, and it is harder in Ramadan,” he says.
The incarceration has made him understand the true meaning of freedom. “I now know what it means to be responsible and be a good man.”
Expressing regret for his actions that have led him down this path, he, however, is grateful for the sense of family he experiences in the prison.
“Despite the sadness, there is a strong sense of family during Ramadan [inside the prison],” said Bilal.
The six years have taught him many lessons. “I am happy. I got rid of my bad habits including consuming drugs, smoking and [keeping] bad company,” says Bilal. “Moreover, I memorised the entire Quran and I perform all prayers.”
He is also studying at Abu Dhabi Technology Institute [which offers educational courses for inmates so they can earn a diploma].
For Bilal, each Ramadan spent inside the prison is helping his spiritual growth. “The facilities and programmes here keep improving by the year and add to our sense of awareness,” he says.
The prisoners are able to stay in touch with their families using the prison’s 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 in a sewing and knitting group that makes cuddly toys and clothing to sell.
Waleed Saeed Ahmad Saeed, Emirati, 30
He entered the jail over drug charges and was sentenced to 14 years in jail. He has completed five years of his term.
Saeed was working with Abu Dhabi police and he is married and has a boy, aged 5. His son was born while he was in the jail .He entered the jail during his honeymoon.
Saeed told Gulf News that the Ramadan spirit could be felt in everything and everywhere in the prison.
During the month, there are different types of programmes and entertainment for the inamtes.
Another prisoner, a 40- year -old from Yemen, is spending his 5th Ramadan at the prison. He is serving a sentence for financial misaapropriation.
During the month, he says, the Muslim prisoners put more emphasis on forgiveness but nothing can help them forget what they are missing.
“[Ramadan] is different because we are not with our families. But now I’ve been here for a long time with these people, and we are like a family now. “But, of course, I miss my family.
“Everyone misses their family, it is hard. We buy phone cards and we call our family.
“All month, I am asking God for forgiveness.”
A unique wooden mosque was opened in Ramadan for the employees of Sharjah Police and their families.
The mosque, made completely from recycled wood, is unique in the UAE. Designed in the workshop of the Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishment, the mosque was transported and placed in the Sharjah Police Desert Park in the Al Kaheef area of Al Bataah.
The Police Desert Park is the first-of-its-kind initiative in the UAE aimed at strengthening the bonds among police employees and their families.
A total of 40 inmates took part in building the wooden mosque and it took two months to finish the work.
The mosque has a capacity for 100 people to pray at a time and police employees have been performing Taraweeh prayers in the mosque.