WASHINGTON: Human rights groups have raised concerns over reports that Muslim inmates in the US state of Virginia are being denied sahoor and iftar meals on time during Ramadan.
The groups have written to Virginia’s governor, attorney general and the Department of Corrections (DOC), saying despite complications posed by COVID-19 in US prisons, inmates have a constitutional right to be able to fast during Ramadan, and to do so without interference.
The groups urged state officials to investigate those reports, and offered cooperation with the authorities to implement better training for prison staff, and to “seek a balance between religious practices and pandemic preparedness.”
At Wallens Ridge Virginia State Prison, several Muslim inmates have been told by staff that because there are “too many Muslims on the Ramadan list this year,” the prison has denied some requests to be placed on the list. If a prisoner is not on the list, they are unable to receive meals before fasting begins or after it ends.
The disproportionately high number of American-Muslim inmates is due to the increasing number of conversions inside the prison. “Inmates find comfort in (the Muslim) faith. That accounts for at least a part of that high number,” Attorney Nimra Azmi from Muslim Advocates, a cosignatory of the letter, told Arab News.
There has been no response from the addressees of the groups’ letter. Only a few Virginia senators wrote back promising to engage in advocacy.
“The same issues happen every year with Ramadan, and there (has been) little to no response (from officials),” Margaret Breslau, cofounder of the Virginia Prison Justice Network, told Arab News.
Under both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), every citizen has a right to free exercise of religion — that does not exclude inmates.
Azmi said prisons have to have a “very serious root cause” for denying people the right to fast. “It has to be that there’s no other way for (prisons) to accomplish their goals without that denial,” she added.
With pandemic-related complications, “you can say there’s a kind of burden on them allowing Muslim inmates the right to fast in some way, but that doesn’t rise to a level where a court would allow them to deny this protected statutory right for inmates to practice their religion,” Azmi said.
Breslau said: “In a broader context, we’ve done our best to advocate for Messianic Jews, Hindus, and those who practice Native American spirituality. It seems like unless you’re the dominant religion (Christian), there will be challenges.”
She added: “Virginia is unique in that their Department of Corrections chaplains aren’t state employees. (They) get half of their funding from the DOC, and the rest is privately funded by individuals, churches, denominations, foundations and businesses. There’s only one Muslim chaplain.
“Unfortunately, this leaves those outside of the dominant Christian religion with little to no advocacy from within the system when their religious rights aren’t respected.”
Elsewhere, in Alaska, the DOC has agreed to policy changes to accommodate Muslim inmates who wish to practice their religion, settling a lawsuit brought by Muslim prisoners last year.