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In France, Prisons Filled With Muslims

Samia El Alaoui Talibi, who with her husband ministers to Muslims at a prison in northern France, talks to an inmate. Activists blame France's social policies for the disproportionate number of Muslims in its prison system.
Samia El Alaoui Talibi, who with her husband ministers to Muslims at a prison in northern France, talks to an inmate. Activists blame France's social policies for the disproportionate number of Muslims in its prison system. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
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"He tells us not to throw away prison food just because it isn't halal," or compliant with Islamic dietary law, said a 33-year-old former civil servant, a man of Algerian descent who attends the twice-monthly prayer meetings. French prison rules prohibit journalists from identifying inmates by name or disclosing their crimes.

The refusal of prison officials to provide halal food, particularly meat products, is one of the biggest complaints of Muslim inmates across France and has occasionally led to cellblock protests.

For many years, prisons have allowed Muslim prisoners to forgo pork products -- and statistics tracking prisoners who refuse pork is an accurate barometer of the Muslim population in a prison, according to researchers. But cutting out pork is a long way from the full halal regimen. Only recently, did the prisons stop using pork grease to cook vegetables and other dishes.

"If you want to comply with your religion, you don't have a choice -- you have to become vegetarian," said the convicted civil servant, a compact man who works in the prison library. "We have access to a prison store with two halal products: halal sausage and a can of ravioli."

Prison officials say it is too expensive to provide halal meals. "We'd like to buy fresh meat, but we can't," said Leclerq, whose prison office is decorated with plush bears.

Muslim inmates said they sense other religious snubs. Christians are allowed packages containing gifts and special treats from their families at Christmas, but Muslims do not receive the same privilege for the Ramadan holy days. "We're careful not to call them Christmas packages because Muslims would ask for Ramadan packages," Leclerq said. "We call them end-of-the-year packages. We can't use a religious term or some people get tense."

Hassan El Alaoui Talibi said the French prison system has made progress since he began his ministry a decade ago. Last year the government set guidelines for all prisons to follow on religious practices, rather than allowing directors to arbitrarily set their own rules.

Prison imams met with Justice Minister Rachida Dati last month with a list of continuing requests, including more imams and training for prison guards to help them better understand religious differences.

A 31-year-old woman of Algerian descent with a youthful face and black, wavy hair tied carelessly in a ponytail welcomed Samia El Alaoui Talibi on a recent morning with double kisses on the cheeks.

"Arriving here was a nightmare," said the woman, one of about 150 female inmates. "I was crying, I couldn't believe I was here.

"Then I saw this woman wearing a head scarf," she said, smiling toward Samia. "I could tell she was here to help me. I call her my angel."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.


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