For those of you who don’t know, Eid is a festival day for Muslims which is celebrated twice a year. Some people like to say that it’s like the Muslim Christmas. That isn’t quite the case but it is the simplest way of explaining it. As we approach the second Eid of this year (Eitt ul-Adha), I thought I’d share something that happened shortly before the last Eid (Eid ul-fitr).
Eid ul-Fitr comes the day after Ramadan finishes and Muslims end the month of fasting. It is traditional to eat with one another on this day and to invite your neighbours in to eat with you too. There is also a special prayer service which Muslims attend in the morning. In prisons it has long been the case that Muslim prisoners come together to pray in congregation and are then given the chance to eat a special meal together. Many people of other religions and none complain about this, saying it is special treatment but I like to rephrase that as specific treatment in just the same way that the provisions made for Christians at Easter and Christmas or Jews at Rosh Hashana and Hannukah or the followers of any other religion on their own festival days is specific treatment. We are all treated equally, but that does not mean we are all treated the same. Provision is made according to the actual religious requirements of each faith.
Some years ago there was a common practice of allowing people outside to donate food for such festivals in prisons. As such, the owners of curry houses often cooked large quantities of different dishes and brought it into the prison for prisoners to eat on the two Eids. However, this was banned a long time ago for understandable security reasons. Since then the food provided has been cooked in the prison kitchens out of their budget, but with that budget being continuously cut, the food provided has gradually reduced both in quantity and quality. That said, what is still provided today is greater in quantity than the usual meals prisoners receive day to day, even if most of it is of a similar nature.
That looked like it was going to change this year though when, shortly before the start of Ramadan, the chaplaincy coordinator stood up in front of the Muslim service on a Friday and said that a new PSI had been introduced which set out that what is provided for one religion must be provided for all, and that every religious festival day which entitles a person to stay off work must be marked in some way with food. His interpretation of this was that each religious festival day must be marked with the same quantity and quality of food, both within one religion and between each religion. As there are four festival days in the Islamic calendar which Muslims are entitled to be absent from work for (the two Eids, Mawlid ul-nabi which is the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, and Ashura which is a predominantly Shi’a Muslim day), he believed that they would have to provide the same amount of food on each of those days as well as for all of the comparable festival days of other religions. Because of this, he said they could no longer afford to provide so much. The solution he offered was that they would still serve special dishes which do not usually feature on the prison menu, but in smaller amounts and, instead of being served at the religious service for worshippers to share together, it would be served on the wing serveries.
However, I checked the PSI he had quoted and I found that it said nothing of the sort. A week or so later I spoke to the chaplaincy coordinator and pointed out that it actually said that each festival day should be marked with food, even if only a small symbolic food item such as a sweet, and that the advisers for each faith should be consulted to determine what the appropriate kind and quantity of food should be for each individual festival. Taking this on board, it was clear that a full meal needn’t be provided for Mawlid un-Nabi or Ashura (which are both celebrated by a minority of Muslims) at all. A small sweet could be given there, preserving the available budget in order to provide full meals at the two Eid’s (which are celebrated by all Muslims). I also pointed out that the PSI explicitly sets out that the food provided should be provided in the place of worship, so there was no good reason to begin telling people they may only have this on the wing.
The truth is, it doesn’t actually matter all that much. Not to me at least. The main and most important thing about the two Eids is that we have the opportunity to attend the prayer service. But I did think that it was reflective of an approach which most departmental managers in prisons seem to share. They are all facing budget cuts year on year and the truth of the matter is, they can no longer afford to meet the minimum provision specified in the PSIs written by the Ministry of Justice on the budget the Ministry dictates. What this leads to is corner cutting and self justification. When they fail to meet the minimum provision required they simply say that they gave all that they could under the constraints of their budget. But I refuse to accept that. It is precisely because they are prepared to do this and so few people challenge them about it that the Ministry of Justice can continue to cut budgets year on year. If just one of them were to keep exactly to the letter of the PSI sent down by the Ministry, providing exactly the minimum provision specified, then it wouldn’t matter if their budget ran out mid-year, the Ministry would have to allow them more. The Ministry of Justice would never be allowed to say “Well if you’ve run out of money in the kitchen, stop feeding them.” And nor would they be allowed to say “Well if you’ve run out of money we’ll cut the minimum provision in future.” The minimum provision is the minimum for a reason. Instead they would be forced to examine exactly why the budget has run out. Sure, if it appeared that a manager had misspent, they would be accountable for that. But if the manager has kept to the letter of the PSI and the budget has still run out, well then the Ministry would be forced to increase the budget the following year. They might not like it, but they wouldn’t have a choice. And all would take is one brave manager to stick exactly to the book for one single tax year.
In the case of the Eid celebrations here, I don’t know what was said behind the scenes after my conversation with the chaplain but in the space of a month their policy changed. When it came to Eid ul-Fitr, a full meal was served in the place of worship just like last year. As for Eid ul-Adha next week, we will see.
Eid Mubarak (Blessed Eid) to all who are celebrating it.