As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, families and advocates demanded the release of vulnerable incarcerated individuals, particularly those who are elderly or ill, incarcerated for parole violations, or eligible for release under compassionate release provisions.30 Documented reports of mass incarceration’s impact on community spread of the coronavirus showed that across the nation, mass incarceration added more than a half million coronavirus cases in just three months, lending an urgency to calls for Governor Gavin Newsom to expedite a reduction in the prison population.31 The advent of the pandemic created new barriers for Muslims in custody who sought to observe their religious practices. While individuals in administrative segregation units or solitary confinement are ordinarily excluded from regular religious services, the pandemic reduced access to prison commissaries, which is where many incarcerated Muslims purchase food items to get the proper nutrition they need throughout the month of Ramadan and otherwise.32
CAIR-CA regularly receives letters from incarcerated individuals regarding violations of their right to practice their religious beliefs particularly around the availability of halal dietary options, access to space for prayer and congregational services, as well as mistreatment by correctional staff. CAIR-CA legal staff serve the Muslim population in prisons and jails by conducting virtual and inperson visitation, working with correctional administrators on ensuring religious accommodations, and filing litigation as a response to the myriad challenges faced by community members impacted by the criminal justice system.
In one unfortunate incident, CAIR-LA attorneys were called into action when a Muslim woman was detained by the Riverside County Sheriffs’ Department and deprived of her right to practice her faith in accordance with her beliefs. During her incarceration, the client’s hijab was removed, and it was returned to her only after her hair was seen by a male deputy. Despite her requests for a cloth or blanket to cover herself, she was denied any type of alternative head covering. Moreover, for the entire duration of her custody, the client was forced to endure having her arms exposed to the view of jailers and other inmates, in violation of her religious beliefs. Additionally, the County failed to accommodate the client during her Ramadan fasts and she was unable to fast during her imprisonment.
To ensure that such incidents are prevented in the future, CAIR-LA’s attorneys filed a lawsuit against the County of Riverside and Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in response to denial of religious accommodations for the Muslim woman while in the County’s custody. CAIR-LA’s lawsuit alleged that the County’s actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the client’s constitutional rights. After months of post-filing discovery, CAIR-LA was able to obtain a significant monetary settlement on her behalf. In a victory for the Muslim community, CAIR-LA was also able to ensure that Riverside County would amend their accommodation policies to ensure the provision of religious arms-coverings to detainees upon request, resulting in one of the most progressive county religious coverings policies nationwide.
In another case, CAIR-SV/CC attorneys were contacted in desperation by a Muslim woman who was pulled over and arrested by sheriff’s deputies while driving with her minor children in the backseat. While being booked at the county jail, she was forced to remove her hijab in the presence of male deputies, despite her repeated and respectful requests for privacy. During the entirety of her detention at the county jail, the client was not allowed access to her hijab or a replacement covering until she was released the next morning. This incident took place in apparent contravention of Tulare County’s own policy requiring accommodations and respect for individuals requiring the wearing of religious head coverings such as the hijab. After her release from jail, the woman contacted CAIR-SV/CC’s legal team for consultation and redress. The incident left both her and her children traumatized. As of this writing, our attorneys are exploring all avenues to vindicate the woman’s civil rights.
Unfortunately, these cases are merely a part of a wider pattern of detention facilities and law enforcement departments repeatedly failing to have written policies regarding religious accommodations for inmates as required by California’s laws.33
Another advocacy strategy that we have engaged in is working closely with prison and jail officials as well as chaplains and local religious leaders such as imams to ensure that Muslims incarcerated in their care have access to regular religious diets, prayer services and do not face retaliation for complaining of deprivations of their constitutional right to religious services.
In one such instance, CAIR-SFBA attorneys engaged in an advocacy campaign targeted at the Solano County Sheriffs’ Office after receiving a series of complaints from Muslim individuals currently incarcerated at their various facilities. In a letter advising Solano County Sheriff’s officials of their responsibilities under RLUIPA and the First Amendment, our attorneys demanded immediate changes to the policies impacting Muslim inmates’ religious accommodations. CAIR-SFBA convened regular meetings with Solano County Sheriffs’ officials, the County chaplain, and an Imam to ensure that there was a phasing in of halal meals where needed, access to religious materials such as prayer rugs and Islamic books, in addition to regular and weekly prayer services post-pandemic. By engaging with multiple community stakeholders, CAIR-SFBA was able to implement lasting change on behalf of Muslim inmates in Solano County.