Federal judges have recently ordered prisons in Alaska and Washington State to accommodate Muslim inmates who fast from sunrise to sunset while observing the holy month of Ramadan, by serving nighttime meals.
During Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (which this year ran from May 16 to June 15), observant Muslims are supposed to fast, refraining from both food and liquid during daylight hours. Lawsuits filed on behalf of Muslim inmates by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) advocacy group contended, if the prison’s meal schedule does not accommodate fasting Muslims by providing evening meals, they are unlikely to maintain adequate nutrition.
The lawsuit filed in each state alleged the constitutional rights of the inmates were being violated by the prison’s failure to accommodate their religious practices and provide adequate nutrition.
In CAIR lawsuit filed against the Alaska Department of Corrections on behalf of two Islamic inmates at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, federal district court judge H. Russel Holland on May 25 issued an emergency order directing the facility to provide them with nutritionally adequate, pork-free meals during Ramadan.
The Alaskan lawsuit claimed that fasting Muslims received “cold meals” providing between 500 and 1100 calories per day, rather than hot meals providing between 2,600 and 2,800 calories called for in state policy.
In Washington state, CAIR filed against the state corrections department suit on a Sunday, June 10, claiming inadequacies in the prison’s Ramadan meals policies caused four Muslim inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex to lose an average of 20 pounds each since the start of Ramadan.
The Washington prison’s policy required inmates who wanted to get nighttime meals during Ramadan to request them no later than the end of January. Those who failed to meet that deadline could receive Ramadan meals only if approved by a prison chaplain.
But some inmates who had applied for the nighttime meals said they had not been provided with them, and others said they were likewise not given nighttime Ramadan meals because they arrived at the prison after the end-of-January deadline for applications. Another inmate said that guards had threatened to force feed him before he was added to the list of inmates approved for Ramadan nighttime meals.
The 20 defendants named in CAIR’s Washington state lawsuit started with the secretary of the state’s Department of Corrections and continued through individual guards. The very next day, federal district court judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma issued a temporary restraining order imposing on the Washington state prison conditions very similar to those granted in Alaska a few weeks earlier. Since the plaintiff inmates had already been deprived of adequate nutrition for three weeks and were continuing to fast, the judge ruled there was no time to wait for a full briefing of the case.
Despite the recent flurry of activity on the issue, litigation on state prison obligations for inmates seeking accommodation on Ramadan meals is not new. CAIR filed a similar case in Flint, Michigan in 2013, which the Michigan Corrections Department settled in January 2017.
After the Michigan settlement, CAIR’s lead lawyer professed the hope that the ruling would be noticed in other states. But because it wasn’t, that lawyer got to work in Washington and Alaska this year.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.