Religious Liberty in Prisons

Religious Discrimination of Muslims in Correctional Facilities

By Ja-Lisa Glover

Religion plays a huge role in many people's lives. Some are free to worship and express their faith without restriction. Others may be prevented from doing so, like for example, individuals who are incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons. 

Will B., 25-years-old, was formerly held in Montgomery County (Pa.) Correctional Facility. Will is Muslim and feels as though the criminal justice system has failed him and his religion, especially during holy days.”Muslims face hardships during the month of Ramadan,” Will B. said.

Statistics show that there are 350,000 Muslims incarcerated in the United States. Many of the believers convert while being in these prisons. The First Amendment grants prisoners the right to worship in any faith. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act upholds this right. Yet still, some prisoners are being denied the free exercise of their religion.

There are about 3.5 million Muslims living in America today, which only makes up about 2 percent of the population. Whether in prison or not, Muslims in the United States face discrimination and injustice on a daily basis.

In the Muslim tradition, many Muslims pray about five times a day. This allows for those who practice this religion to get a closer connection with “allah,” which is their god in arabic. During these prayers they use items such as prayer mats, and they normally find themselves praying together. They also consume food halal, which is meat that is prayed over when killed..

When Muslims are incarcerated, these faith-based customs and traditions can be infringed upon. Muslims face the injustice of not being able to pray together and worship their god in the way they would if they were not locked up. 

According to Will B., his facility did not “honor our prayer times there. For many of us, we pray in our cells rather than collectively with one another.” 

Religion is something that can get people through difficult times when they are most in need of hope. There are 1.3 million people in the prison population and about 9 percent of them are Muslim. Some correctional facilities in the U.S. are not allowing Muslim inmates to practice their religion according to their customs. Specifically, they are not allowing them to pray and eat certain foods and are stopping them from connecting with their god. 

According to research done by Kenneth Marcus of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, these prisoners are being treated this way because of the bias correctional officers have against their religion

Bushra Islam is the co-president of the Muslim Student Association at Cabrini Univeirsity. She stated, “ Many of the brothers and sisters in the prisons tend to not get treated fairly because of the stereotype placed on Muslim community.”

Marcus labels this stereotype Islamophobia, specifically. Islamophobia is the dislike or prejudice against Muslims or Islam. He says Muslim inmates are not fed the proper  foods or able to pray when they needed to, and he says these are all pieces of discrimination against their religion. 

Advocates have protested, debated, and argued to many officials, working to create the change needed for Muslim inmates. “These facilities should allow them to follow their religion because when, in times like such, they need hope and someone to follow,” Islam said.

Lack of Religious Freedom in Jails and Prisons

The Criminal Justice system is setting the new tone for the prisons population for all inmates. With the help of foundations and communities coming together.

Produced and Edited by Ja-Lisa Glover

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