Providing Religious Freedom For Muslims in Prison
Date:  07-31-2019

Report offers suggestions to correct "systematic hurdles" Muslims in prison face
From Muslim Advocates:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Freedom of religion is a core American value, and religious free exercise is enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment. But these essential rights and liberties have not always been extended equally to all faiths, or to all members of society. Prisoners, and Muslim prisoners in particular, have faced multiple hurdles in obtaining basic accommodations for their devotional practices, holidays, burial practices, and religious diet requirements.

The U.S. Congress twice reiterated America’s commitment to religious liberty for all, including prisoners, by passing two pieces of bipartisan legislation: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (2000). These laws were a direct response to Supreme Court decisions that weakened some of the religious exercise protections the First Amendment offered. But even after Congress passed RFRA and RLUIPA, courts applied the protections unevenly and did not always rigorously question government burdens on religious exercise, as the statutes demanded. In Holt v. Hobbs in 2015, the Supreme Court confirmed that the statutes are extremely demanding and require strict scrutiny of prison polices that block religious practice.

Until now, little information has been compiled about the numbers of state prisoners who identify with any particular faith, and there have been few state-by-state comparisons of accommodation policies and practices. Muslim Advocates therefore submitted records requests to 49 states and the District of Columbia to learn more about prisoners’ religious preferences and to compare levels of religious accommodation available to Muslims. We also analyzed more than 160 recent Muslim prisoner free exercise cases in which there was a federal court decision or order over a 15-month period.

First, our research shows that within the 34 states that provided data in response to our requests, Muslims are overrepresented in state prisons by a factor of eight relative to the general population. In some state systems, Muslims are overrepresented by a factor of closer to eighteen, with more than 20 percent of prisoners identifying as Muslim. The absolute number of Muslim prisoners has also increased over time, even as prison populations in many states have tended to decrease in the last few years. Despite Muslims constituting a significant and growing share of prisoners, many state departments of correction still have policies that are outdated, under-accommodating, or non-accommodating of Muslim prisoners. Continue reading >>>