By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
Through the years, the ACLU of Virginia has received numerous complaints from incarcerated persons informing us that their religious practices had been suppressed in some way or another.   Last year about this time, we started receiving complaints from Muslim inmates in local jails informing us that jail officials were not accommodating their needs during Ramadan.
For those unfamiliar with Islamic custom, Ramadan is the month of fasting when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.  During the holy month, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset to instill themselves with a sense of discipline, patience, self-control and sympathy to the needy.  It is also a time of increased prayer and worship.
As a proactive measure this year, we sent a letter to local and regional jail officials throughout the Commonwealth informing them of the need to accommodate Muslim inmates during this holy month.  The letter sent in advance of the holiday reminded officials that under the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, they must allow inmates to observe Ramadan by providing meals at appropriate times of the day.  We urged them to adhere to the same policies that the Virginia Department of Corrections follows (pdf).
In response to our letter one jail that had previously been the subject of complaints wrote us to say it had implemented a policy similar to DOC’s.   Another jail took the time to ask for further clarification about when meals could be served.  (For those who are interested, VDOC provides one hot meal before dawn, one after sunset, and a bag meal to be consumed during the night.)
And best of all, we have not received a single complaint from Muslim inmates this year.
Incarceration does not mean the end of all religious liberty for inmates.  As a fundamental freedom, the government cannot infringe on inmates’ religious practices without a compelling reason.  Muslim inmates celebrating Ramadan do not pose a security risk to other inmates or jail officials, and accommodating their needs during the holy month is relatively simple and inexpensive.
We’re happy to see that jails appear to be honoring Muslim inmates’ First Amendment rights this Ramadan.
The ACLU of Virginia is prepared to offer assistance to inmates who encounter problems in their observance of Ramadan.  Please contact us at intake[at]acluva.org.

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