Alaska jail sued over alleged mistreatment of Muslim inmates

Anchorage Correctional Complex (Alaska DOC photo)

A national Muslim civil rights and advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against several members of Alaska’s Department of Corrections.

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In documents filed Tuesday in Alaska’s U.S. District Court, the Washington D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations claim prisoners in an Anchorage jail are being denied their constitutional rights.

CAIR’s lawsuit pertains to how Muslim inmates are allowed to practice their faith during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when observers fast during the day. Alaska DOC has policies to accommodate practitioners, giving them bagged meals to eat in their cells after breaking fast. But according to CAIR, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of two plaintiffs at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, the meals are inadequate.

“They’re literally being starved,” Lena Masri, lead counsel on the case, said during a fundraiser broadcast by CAIR over Facebook Live on Tuesday evening.

The complaint alleges that the bagged meals given to prisoners have less than half the calories that DOC says inmates should be given in a day. On top of that, CAIR says some of the sandwiches were believed to contain meat products with pork in them, violating Muslim dietary rules.

The plaintiffs also say that after they contacted CAIR, correctional officers took the punitive steps of “shaking down” their cells and removing food the men had stashed there, penalizing them further by denying them any more bagged meals.

“The prison retaliated against them by literally confiscating all the food that they had saved up, and so they ate nothing that day,” Masri said.

The lawsuit claims that Muslim prisoners are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, as well as disparate treatment from inmates of other faiths. It names ten individuals within DOC as defendants, from guards all the way up to the commissioner. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation to cover legal costs and suffering associated with malnutrition, discomfort and risks to their health.

Jeremy Hough is the standards administrator for DOC. He could not comment on specific details of on-going litigation like claims of retaliation, but he said some of the allegations raised in questions from reporters don’t align with general institutional policies. For example, he disputed that the bologna in sandwiches given to Muslim inmates had pork in them.

“Those are non-pork. It’s a turkey bologna,” Hough said by phone on Wednesday. “Matter of fact, ACC is a non-pork facility.”

According to Hough, DOC’s nutrition guidance limits pork at its facilities in the interest of heart health.

Hough said there are 10 inmates at ACC registered to fast during Ramadan. As a pre-trial and jail facility where inmates generally stay on a shorter-term basis, it is more difficult to accommodate particular religious practices compared to bigger long-term facilities like Goose Creek, according to Hough. He was not sure of the total calorie count in the bagged lunches, but said the facility has reasonable alternative options like vegan meals for inmates who request them.

The CAIR lawsuit asks for immediate steps to be taken to keep the plaintiffs from suffering from hunger while observing their faith.

According to CAIR’s Carolyn Homer, an Alaska judge had granted an emergency hearing on the case for Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

This year, Ramadan started on May 16th and lasts until June 15th.