Saturday, March 24, 2007

United States Commission on Civil Rights- Religious Accomadation for Muslim Inmates in California Facilities

Muslims in the Federal, State and Local Prison Facility

By Affad Shaikh

The following is a summary of testimony that was presented on Friday March 23, 2006 to the California State Advisory Committee, by me on the "State of Muslim Inmates Incarcerated in California Prisons". By providing this to you, I hope that it will help in trying to motivate our community to communicate, interact and actively volunteer to help our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated.

Thank you for this opportunity to present the state of affair for Muslim inmates incarcerated in California facilities. I am proud to be presenting this because it allows me to voice concern for the many Muslims inmates who have reported incidents to us.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a ...

CAIR's Civil Rights Department counsels, mediates and advocates on behalf of Muslims and others who have experienced religious discrimination, defamation or hate crimes. The department works to protect and defend the constitutional rights of American Muslims, thereby supporting the rights of all Americans.

Each year CAIR publishes a Civil Rights report outlining the status of American Muslims Civil Rights. I took the liberty of pulling some statistics relevant to our discussion today.

Nationally CAIR has seen a 7% increase in the total number of cases reported to our 32 offices across the United States. Prison cases in 2006, represented the 3rd highest reported category. These generally fall under issues involving religious accommodation for inmates, employees as well as visitors.

Our California offices- Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles Area- have similar statistic's of cases reported from California's facilities. It is important to remember that the Federal Bureau of Prisons estimates that there are more then 5% of the prison population is Muslim. The majority of these inmates become Muslim while incarcerated.

CAIR is in the business of handling reports of cases and incidents, as such I am speaking specifically regarding the reports we receive, and this does not preclude that we have not seen or felt that positives steps have been taken at these facilities by prison officials.

Islam and Muslim Practices Pertinent to Incarcerated Muslims- brief overview.

I have to admit that the report that my survey of our four chapter presents a frustrated experience with trying to adjudicate these cases. The following is a conclusion we have received from many facilities we have asked to investigate cases or incidents:

"After conducting a thorough investigation, we reach the conclusion that there was no violation of inmate's rights"
You can imagine, how as community advocates this is a frustrating situation.

Muslim inmates report of being denied access to Muslim chaplains or not being informed of religious services. We have also had reports of Muslims not being allowed to pray Friday Congregational prayers. Muslim chaplains report to us that Muslims in the prisons are constantly trying to establish prayer, and in one persons words- "fighting to pray and don't have time to try to get halaal meals".

Dietary requirements for Muslims are a significant number of cases reported to us. In one instance we were informed that Muslim inmates were being forced to eat Pork because of a lack of dietary choices. In another incident, Muslim inmates report of being fed Pork while being told or seeing labels stating "Turkey". Prisoners complain that kosher meals are often provided, however, their dietary needs are not provided for. We encounter funding as an issue affecting the decision to provide hallal meat. Where there are large Muslim populations, these efforts have been possible but have however, ended with funding problems.

Receiving hard copies of the Quran or packages of soft cover reading material have on numerous occasions been returned to vendors and volunteer community organizations with no explanations. There have been cases of Quran's being found torn as a form of retaliation against Muslim inmates.

In other instances Muslim holidays are not recognized by prison officials- there are two critical holidays. One celebrating the end of Ramadan, the other celebrating the completion of the fifth pillar of Islam, and is celebrated by all Muslims.

Other issues include Muslim women who wear the hijab who are forced to remove the hijab. This includes visitors as well as Muslim women inmates. Increasingly, this is an issue that has arisen with Immigration Detention facilities- where there is also a complete lack of accountability in these facilities to religious accommodation, and these also include "for profit" facilities.

In conclusion, these facilities are difficult environments and we understand the desire and need to have a secure environment maintained by Peace Officers. There is policy that exists an is in place, and we have seen that there is a great deal of commitment to these policies from facility officials. However, from our experience with these cases have proven to be difficult in producing results that balance the security needs and the established Constitutional rights of incarcerated Muslims. I feel that Muslim inmates have religious accommodation as mandated by the policy, however, it is a constant challenge to safeguard and to uphold those practices.


Huda Shaka` said...

Jazakum Allah khairan. Is there a number or email people can use to contact authorities and voice their concerns about this important issue?

Affad Shaikh said...


You that is a good question, to be honest I dont know if there are.

In fact, i dont even know if there is a concerted effort that exists to help theses individuals.

CAIR handles the complaints for the time being. We have not been able to make much head way. I know UCLA and UCSD MSA's have efforts to out reach to inmates, but maybe there can be a project that is developed via the MSA's in conjunction with other organizations, in which some sort of selective and focused movement on an issue can be built upon.

For example- we can try to get students to start meeting their state members and writing to wardens at specific prisons to try to get change or better idea's to understand how a grass roots movement can work on issues.

But again i think its important to focus on one core issue- it can be halal meat or it can be access to chaplains, i dont have the answer, this will require talking to people that are more part of the system.

Again, at this point i am not aware of any specific action. I am happy to see that the discussion came up. Hopefully others can chime in, so pass this to people outside the Muslim community to other organizations to get a sense of what can be done.

Huda Shaka` said...

From prison dawah experience with MSU UCI, I know Br. Shakeel Sayed from Shura Council is (or at least was) involved with outreach efforts to Muslim inmates. Maybe he can give us suggestions on where and how to start. Writing to wardens at specific prisons regrading specific issues sounds like a good idea.