Prisoners and staff join forces for month of fast living

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 1998, 12:00am


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WELL before dawn, dozens of prisoners are awake in their cells and starting the first of five daily prayer sessions.

During the month of Ramadan - commemorating the handing down of the Koran, the Islamic holy book - about 70 prisoners and 30 Correctional Services Department (CSD) staff live according to a strict and ancient ritual.

Muslims observe a self-imposed fast during daylight this month, partaking in no food, liquid, cigarettes or sex between an hour before sunrise and sunset.

'It's self-restraint,' says CSD officer Nesar Ahmed, watching colleagues sit cross-legged on the rattan mats of Stanley prison mosque.

'There are many temptations; it teaches you self-control and discipline.

'At the same time, you are thinking there are many people in the world who are poor; who cannot have food. We are only doing this for a very short time.' Mr Ahmed is the caretaker of the mosque. He lives in staff quarters close to the terracotta minarets. Inside, 14 arched windows illuminate the delicate Arabic script of framed passages from the Koran.

The Mosque was built in 1936, by the hundreds of Indian and Pakistani staff who then worked for the CSD.

So tied is Mr Ahmed to the mosque, he prefers to live beside it despite having to travel for hours to work at Lantau Island's Shek Pik prison.

'Everybody has their own commitments; it's a busy life in Hong Kong,' he shrugs. 'Islam is a way of life.' When the Imam, Hafiz Anyat Shah, first began leading Friday prayers in the CSD compound 19 years ago, about 150 Muslim staff faced Mecca beside him.

Now just seven, and their families, remain.

Prisoners are sometimes led in prayer by an Imam, but without the aesthetic benefits of the mosque.

Lai Sun prison acting superintendent Khalid Mahmood Khan says Prison Rule 45 guarantees that all Muslim prisoners can observe Ramadan.

They are awoken at 5 am for breakfast, instead of having the usual 7.30 am meal, and dinner arrives about 6 pm, just after sundown.

'Most of them come from the subcontinent, but now we have a trend of Chinese illegal immigrants who are Muslim,' Mr Khan said.

'They have to pray five times a day. They pray in the workshops, but in a quiet area of the workshop.

'We won't allow them to disrupt the routine or the security.' This year Ramadan will probably end on January 29, the day after Lunar New Year.

'Out in the real world - outside the prison - there will be a lot of sweets and food to celebrate,' Mr Khan said. 'In the prison, they will have the same diet.'