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Incarcerated Muslims denied religious rights

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Aug 6, 2019 - 1:56:37 PM

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WASHINGTON—Across America incarcerated Muslims in state prisons are needlessly denied their basic religious freedoms, according to a report, “Fulfilling the Promise of Free Exercise for All: Muslim Prisoner Accommodation in State Prisons,” by Muslim Advocates.

“State prisons incarcerate far more people than the federal system yet, until now, there was little to no basic information about how these states handle their constitutional obligation to allow people to practice their religion,” said Muslim Advocates Arthur Liman Yale Law School Public Interest Fellow Yusuf Saei.

“Prisons are not Constitution-free zones. As the population of Muslims held in state prisons grows, states clearly aren’t taking the First Amendment rights of their incarcerated populations seriously.”

The report found:

• Muslims Are Vastly Overrepresented in State Prisons: About nine percent of the overall state prison population is Muslim. In Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and D.C., the share of Muslim prisoners is around 20 percent or higher. The significant presence of Muslims in prison stands in stark contrast to Muslims’ share of the U.S. population as a whole, which is just one percent.

• Muslim Prisoners Are Often Denied Religiously-Approved Food, Prayer and Worship Opportunities: Muslim Advocates reviewed more than 160 free exercise lawsuits filed by incarcerated Muslims in federal court, and found that many involved a lack of religiously-approved meals, an inability to observe traditional religious fasting or being barred from praying in groups. California’s prisons were sued the most, with 20 cases, followed by New York (13), Virginia (10), Georgia (9), North Carolina (8), Texas (8) and Wisconsin (8).

• Some States Ignore or Downplay Incarcerated Muslims’ Basic Religious Needs: Some states have policies that comply with federal law and the Constitution by accommodating the basic needs of Muslim prisoners. However, other states needlessly and excessively deny Muslim prisoners these accommodations, seemingly without any legitimate justification. The fact that some states easily grant Muslims access to religiously-approved food and clothing while others don’t show how arbitrary these denials are.

• America’s Muslim Prison Population is Growing, Includes Many Women: The data shows that the number of Muslims in state prisons is growing, even though the prison population overall has decreased in recent years in many states. Further, this population includes many women, with eight percent of female prisoners identifying as Muslim in Pennsylvania and 2.5 percent identifying as Muslim in Texas and Wisconsin.

For decades the Nation of Islam has worked to address and prevent these problems with Muslim inmates through their Prison Reform Ministry. The advocacy for prisoners’ rights goes all the way back to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s incarceration in 1942 with 80 of his followers for their religious beliefs.

That same prison ministry produced Malcolm X as well as other men and women who go in as criminals only to return to their communities as productive people.

“Muslim chaplains play an invaluable role in the life of an incarcerated Muslim. They help that Muslim navigate and negotiate with the administration for their religious rights. Many state prisons don’t have Muslim chaplains but they need them,” Anthony Muhammad, Mid Atlantic Student Prison Reform Minister told The Final Call.

For the past 30 years he has worked in the D.C. jail and other state institutions from Delaware to South Carolina providing services to the Muslim population.

“If you are a Muslim chaplain you can request donations for Muslim residents. Once the embassy of Saudi Arabia donated 20 cases of Qur’ans to the mosque. I was able to take them to the D.C. jail. The Muslim chaplain can make life easier for the incarcerated Muslim. The Muslim chaplain also can teach classes in the institution that can attract other inmates and aid in conversions.”

While the report was comprehensive in what the prisoners were being denied it did not address the need for Muslim chaplains or the historic work of the Nation of Islam’s Prison Reform Ministry in meeting the needs of incarcerated Muslims all over the country.

“We provide prayer rugs, kufis, Final Call newspapers, a willing ear to listen, we contact families, help people when they are released, connect them to the mosque when they come home and so much more,” Mr. Muhammad said.

“Life isn’t easy being incarcerated and it isn’t easy being incarcerated as a Muslim but a Muslim chaplain can make that life just a little easier. The Nation of Islam Prison Ministry Program, which is all over the country, is dedicated to serving our people. We even work with the increasing numbers of women that are incarcerated too.”

The Muslim Advocates report was unclear on whether the numbers of Muslims in prison was based on conversion or those who were in the faith when they encountered the criminal justice system.