Virginia jail sued for segregated ‘God pod’

28th Dec 2018

Elham Asaad Buaras

A Virginia jail that has created segregated ‘God pod’ living quarters and special programmes for Christian inmates is being sued by four Muslim inmates for unconstitutional practices.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations filed the lawsuit against Riverside Regional Jail in North Prince George on November 21 for violations of the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The lawsuit by Muslim inmates Mitchell Young, Desmond Horton, Dominic Robertson and Chris Mayo details how Muslim men have been denied adequate meals during Ramadan, access to Islamic programming and to pork-free meals, while their Christian counterparts were facilitated.

Lena Masri, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ National Litigation Director, said inmates told the group’s attorneys that about 30 to 40 inmates have been moved into the pod since it was established several weeks ago.

Masri said a flier posted in the jail described the ‘Life Learning programme’ as a programme conducted by chaplains with the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a group that says on its website that it has chaplains providing Bible-based programmes in 22 states.

“Segregating inmates based on their willingness to study and live their lives in accordance with the Bible is a clear violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. This lawsuit seeks a Federal Court’s intervention to ensure that Riverside Regional Jail respects the rights of inmates of all faiths,” said Masri.

She noted that religious programming is a constitutional aspect of a prison’s educational offerings to its inmates and that the jail’s inadequate religious programming for Muslim inmates reflects the facility’s discriminatory approach. The lawsuit contends that the Christian pod is unconstitutional on several fronts, including violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the Government from establishing an official religion or unduly favouring one religion over another.

It asks for an injunction to order the jail to dismantle the pod and to provide Muslim inmates with access to Islamic programming and adequate nutrition during Ramadan. In addition to dismantling the ‘God Pod,’ the injunction sought includes a court order that the jail provides Muslim inmates with adequate nutrition during Ramadan and access to Islamic programming.

One of the plaintiffs, Mitchell Young, who was detained in the jail last spring, says he asked officials at the facility to help him observe Ramadan, as many jails across the country make special accommodations for Muslim prisoners during this time by serving them meals before sunrise and after sunset, but his request was denied.

The four plaintiff prisoners say they were routinely starved during Ramadan and were denied access to religious materials, prevented from meeting with religious leaders, and prohibited from studying the Qur’an in groups.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations offers an educational toolkit, called “A Correctional Institution’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices,” to help correctional officers and administrators gain a better understanding of Islam and Muslims.

Riverside Regional Jail officials did not immediately respond for requests seeking comment.

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