Sharjah: For the individuals at the Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishments who are seeking a return to the path of piety, Ramadan is a deeply reflective 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.
Brigadier Ahmad Shuhail, director general of Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishments, told Gulf News this year the facility set up a Ramadan tent for inmates. With capacity of 30 inmates. Every day a new group of 30 inmates attended the tent from 9pm to 1am. The initiative is a first of its kind at the level of Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishment.
Gulf News visited the tent recently and found the female and male inmates enjoying their time – playing board games, watching TV, listening to religion lectures or learning the correct recitation of the Quran .
The inmates get together for group iftars, attend Taraweeh prayers, and take part in contests, cultural events and entertainment such as table tennis and electronic games.
The department 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.
Since the beginning on Ramadan, the department settled the debt of 35 inmates, worth Dh600,000 in total.
The department also launched an initiative called ‘Sand’ [which means support in Arabic) for inmates’ families that offers vocational skill courses such as cooking, sewing, make-up or hairstyling, so they can earn a living while their breadwinner is in jail. The establishment also tries to find jobs for the inmates after their release, based on the skills they have acquired in the prison.
Major Khalfan Salem Bin Shaqwa, director of the Educational and Rehabilitation Branch, told Gulf News 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 inmates benefit from these talks.
“Ramadan is a great opportunity for Muslim prisoners to strengthen their path to goodness,” said Maj 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, Maj Bin Shaqwa said, and the Sharjah Punitive and Rehabilitation Establishment’s programmes aim to reform inmates or even reduce their sentences.
“We offer a number of programmes and cater to all nationalities,” he added.
“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.”
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.
Longing for reunion
Saeed Al Muhairi, who is Emirati is now observing his 22 Ramadan behind bars. Now 38, he had entered the jail when he was 16-year –old after convicted in a murder charge.
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,” said Saeed. “Everyone in jail is always talking about the 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.
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 said.
For Saeed, 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.”
When Gulf News visited the Ramadan tent, Saeed was sitting with a group of inmates and he taught them the correct way to recite the Quran . “It is great idea to have Ramadan tent …We feel so happy and the true spiritual atmosphere of Ramadan can be felt,” he said.
‘Sense of family’
Hameed Sultan, a 36-year-old Emirati, has spent six months in the jail. He said 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,” Sultan added.
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 Hameed. “It great to sit out of bars and enjoy the Ramadan time inside the tent.”
‘I got rid of bad habits’
Sura Fadhel, who is Iraqi, was convicted in a drug case and sentenced to three months. The 25-year-old is already serving her sentence and about to be released after completing legal procedures.
She said the three months have taught her many lessons. “I am happy. I got rid of my bad habits including consuming drugs, smoking and [keeping] bad company,” said Sura. “Moreover, I memorised the entire Quran and I perform all prayers.”
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, beside video conferencing with family members .
They earn money to buy phone cards by working in a number of workshops including a sewing and knitting group that makes toys and clothing to sell.
Juorya Abdullah, a Filipina, 32, is now observing her seventh Ramadan behind bars. She is serving a sentence for a murder charge.
Juorya told Gulf News that the Ramadan spirit could be felt “in everything and everywhere” in the prison.
“[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.
She added: “All month, I am asking God for forgiveness.”