Muslims in U.S. Prisons describe abuse and neglect during the month of Ramadan

A maximum-security prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia is being sued for refusing to turn over their Muslim prisoners’ official grievances against the staff — your Friday long read from TIME

We go to TIME magazine for this week’s long read by Sanya Mansoor. Read the whole article “ ‘I Don’t Think You’re Going to Be Eating Tonight.’ Muslims Describe Ramadan in U.S Prisons.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time!

Lawsuit alleges physical violence, retaliation, placing inmates in unhygienic conditions, rampant use of derogatory and bigoted language prison staff targeting Muslim inmates

“For many Muslim prisoners in Virginia and nationwide, Ramadan has for years entailed not getting enough food, being lucky if food even arrives during a time when you can eat, jumping through hoops to possess religious items as well as fundamental misunderstandings about key components of the faith by prison staff. In some cases, courts have found that such barriers violate federal law.”

“National advocates want greater transparency around the hurdles incarcerated Muslims face in practicing their faith as well as for prisons to rectify them; some progressive Muslims are going as far as calling for prison abolition.”


“Federal law carves out special considerations for religious freedoms, including those for prisoners, in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which covers incarcerated people in federal prisons, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which covers those in state prisons. They are supposed to help protect prisoners from negative health effects or discipline that may occur as a result of practicing their faith. But states still vary greatly in the protections they provide.”

“RLUIPA—the main law used to protect state prisoners’ religious freedoms—works on a case-by-case basis, says Chris Pagliarella, who teaches at Yale Law School’s Free Exercise Clinic. But he notes that “the more prison systems in our country that can accommodate Ramadan, the higher the burden on” any state to show why they cannot.”

“Issues around religious diet are the most common accommodation problem that Muslim prisoners alleged in federal lawsuits, according to Muslim Advocates. These grievances include everything from Ramadan meals to regular ones throughout the year that fail to provide halal options.”

“It’s not just food but also religious possessions and appearance that can be an issue, too. Wallace says prison staff have asked him to “cut his Muhammad beard off” and take off his kufi—a religious head covering—while in the common area. ‘They say you can’t wear that out here; it’s a wave cap.’ When Jason was first placed in restrictive housing last month, he says authorities took his kufi as well as his prayer rug. He has since been praying on a towel, he says.”

Bottom line

“Gay Gardner, a senior adviser for the nonprofit Interfaith Action for Human Rights, has received numerous complaints detailing what she says are abusive and allegedly unlawful treatment by Wallens Ridge staff towards Muslim prisoners. Which is why in April, she sued Virginia’s Department of Corrections with help from Muslim Advocates alleging that the agency refused to share official grievances Muslims at Wallens Ridge had filed about their ability to practice their faith and any hostility they may have faced as a result of it as well as failure to provide documents reflecting which prisoners had requested the ability to participate in Ramadan—information she had unsuccessfully tried to uncover through a public records request.”

‘If everything is done appropriately and if inmates are being treated humanely, then there shouldn’t be any resistance to outside oversight and to meaningful transparency,” Gardner says.

“For some Muslims, no amount of reform or prison programming can fix the inherent trauma of incarceration. “Goodness and humanity cannot exist in prison, especially coming from correctional staff, because then it wouldn’t be a prison,” Khan says. Progressive Muslim American groups like Chicago-based Believers Bail Out are raising awareness around prison abolition and ramped up fundraising efforts in Ramadan to bail out Muslims in pre-trial incarceration and provide supplies for those behind bars.”

Read the full article here.

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