One prison went as far as banning Muslims from praying in their own cells, the report says.
Rabat – A report published this month by the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates found that Muslims in US prisons are being denied basic religious freedoms, such as access to halal food and the right to pray.
The report also found that Muslims are dramatically overrepresented in US prisons, accounting for about 9% of state prisoners. Muslims only represent 1% of the US population.
“We don’t know for certain why there are so many, or why the numbers are growing,” said Yusuf Saei, the study’s main author. “Possible factors are the growth of the Muslim population in the U.S. generally, increased surveillance, harsher sentencing, and enforcement for Muslim communities, as well as conversions in prison.”
To get these numbers, Muslim Advocates requested religious preference data from every state and based its report on the records it received from 34 states and Washington D.C.
Analysis of court cases show dietary requirements are not met
After getting a proper grasp of how many Muslims are in state prisons, the organization then analyzed discrimination complaints put forward by Muslims in prison and found that “numerous Muslim prisoners face obstacles to practicing their faith.”
Many of these complaints stemmed from prisons refusing to comply with the dietary restrictions of Muslims, especially during Ramadan.
Out of 163 cases of discrimination put forward by Muslim prisoners in the federal court and evaluated in the study, nearly 40% involved food.
In one case, a prisoner alleged that the prison failed to provide him religious meals for four consecutive days during the month of Ramadan. Another alleged that he had
to submit 15 requests to receive halal meals, over a period of about nine months before, before the request was finally accepted.
The frequency of discrimination cases against Muslims in prisons is likely much higher than cases brought to court, due to the difficulties prisoners face in filing a lawsuit.
“To file such a lawsuit, a prisoner must pay fees and overcome other serious obstacles to litigating, including the inability to obtain legal representation, fear of retaliation, difficulty conducting legal research, and lack of materials for mailing,” said the report.
Requests to celebrate Eid al-Fitr routinely denied, praying limited
The study found that another common complaint from Muslim prisoners is that requests to celebrate Eid al-Fitr are frequently denied, and work exemptions are not given. In Vermont and Alabama, policy says that “there are no work proscriptions required” for Muslims.
“Considering that Christian holiday meals and festivity requests are routine or easily granted approval, these claims signal disparate treatment of Muslim prisoners,” said the report.
The second most common complaint, accounting for 57 of the 163 cases, or 35%, regards obstacles to prayer and worship.
The report referenced a case at one institution where Muslim inmates were banned from praying inside the chapel, even though other religious groups were permitted to do so. The Plaintiff in the case explained that this rule forced him and other Muslim inmates to pray outside in extreme weather conditions including cold, snow, and rain.
In other cases, prisoners were banned from praying in the outdoor yard or prison dayroom and were sent to administrative segregation when they tried to do so. One prison even went as far as banning Muslims from praying in their own cells, the report says.
Widespread inconsistencies in prison policy
Since an analysis of court cases can not provide an accurate picture of discrimination, for the aforementioned reasons, the third part of the study analyzed the policies in state prisons across the US regarding religious freedom.
The report found dramatic inconsistencies from state to state, with “some providing an appropriate level of accommodation in their policies, and others seemingly ignoring or downplaying the basic religious needs of Muslim prisoners.”
For example, while some states are fully accommodating of prayer, with seven state religious
handbooks recognizing the importance of group prayer in Muslim daily practice and
instruct that daily group prayer be allowed where possible, other states are much less accommodating.
The study also found “numerous examples of restrictions on Muslim practice that are needless, excessive, and without any legitimate justification,” and are therefore in breach of federal law. Muslim Advocates cited several of these “restrictive, and at times ridiculous” laws in its report as examples.
While 17 states are completely accommodating of religious headgear, most of the states have odd restrictions in their policy. One odd law, in Colorado, says head coverings are allowed outside of the cell, but only if they are covered with another head covering such as a stocking or baseball cap and are “not visible.”
“These restrictions on head covering are arbitrary. As the Colorado policy shows, non-religious headgear is allowed outside of cells. A baseball cap brim surely obscures the face more so than most Muslim headgear, which is brimless and, with the exception of a face veil, leaves the face unobstructed,” the report points out.
Changes must be made
As well as pointing out the flaws in the current prison system with regards to the rights of Muslims, the report outlined what changes it recommends to rectify these issues.
The suggestions include allowing Muslims to adjust their work hours during Ramadan, training guards on how to conduct respectful searches of religious property, and allowing head coverings throughout their facilities. Muslims Advocates also said that the growing Muslim representation in US prison “should be enough of an incentive to implement the suggestions nationally.”
“As civil rights lawyers, our takeaway is that many state prisons are failing to respond to the needs of this significant population of Muslims,” said Saei, the study’s main author. “It is simply unreasonable for so many state prisons to deny these people basic necessities […] particularly when other prisons are already doing this with ease.”