November 7, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 45

News

Pierce County Jail ordered to oblige Muslim inmates

by: Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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After numerous complaints that staff at the Pierce County Jail gave preferential treatment to Christian inmates while denying Muslim inmates the right to follow their religious practices, the Public Interest Law Group and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit in U.S.District Court on behalf of present and future Muslim inmates.

In a settlement, officials at the Pierce County Jail, which is overseen by the Pierce County Council, agreed to create new policies about religious accommodations and faith-based programs. Muslim inmates at the Pierce County Jail can now get halal meals, wear clothes that comply with their customs and have access to rugs and other materials needed for the five daily prayers practiced in the religion.

ACLU spokesperson Doug Honig said although the settlement accommodates Muslims, people of any religion stand to benefit, because it means the Pierce County Jail must now take religious practice into consideration.

“The right to practice religion is important,” Honig said.

According to the lawsuit, when inmates Larry Tarrer and Raymond Garland requested halal meals, which comply with Muslim dietary restrictions, they were told instead to eat the vegetarian or vegan food, even though the jail kitchen prepared kosher food for Jewish inmates.

The pair tried following their religious calendar and daily prayer, but the jail refused to accommodate their needs.

During Ramadan, Tarrer asked to take his medicine in the evening because practicing Muslims do not eat between sunrise and sunset during the month of Ramadan and need to eat specific foods such as dates during their meals. Jail staff said a pill and water would not violate Ramadan, arguing that his request was merely a preference, not a right.

The jail also denied Muslim inmates the right to perform their five daily prayers, which require access to a washroom and prayer rugs.

When Tarrer tried to join a group called the God Pod, which offered Christian inmates outdoor recreation time, visitors and entertainment, he was denied membership by jail staff, who told him the group was only for Christians.

The settlement requires the jail to disband the God Pod and requires that any future faith-based groups be open to anyone in the jail, regardless of religion.

The kitchen will prepare halal meals year round and will allow inmates fasting during Ramadan to take their meals at different times.

The jail also agreed to sell prayer rugs, oil and towels out of its commissary for Muslims to use for their daily prayers.

The jail’s new policies also include accommodations for religious dress. The jail will allow inmates to purchase and wear kufis (traditional skull caps)and allow inmates to roll up their pant legs, as some Muslims will not wear pants with hems that fall below the ankles.

The Public Interest Law Group will receive quarterly reports from the jail to assess how the new policies are working. The first report is due in December.

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