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Muslim inmates sue US prison after being pepper-sprayed while praying

Council on American-Islamic Relations says inmates do not 'lose their basic rights' upon entering prison
Several lawsuits have been filed in recent years dealing with the issue of Muslim inmates' ability to practise their faith while incarcerated.
A view of the Missouri Department of Corrections' Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (Missouri Department of Corrections/Facebook)

A Muslim American civil rights group has filed a lawsuit against several officials of the Missouri prison system for allegedly pepper-spraying Muslim inmates while they prayed.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the prisoners by the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair), accused the state's department of corrections officials of violating the inmates' constitutional rights, including to freely practise their religion.

“This lawsuit is about holding state officials to account and upholding the rights of all citizens,” Cair attorney, Kimberly Noe-Lehenbauer, said in a statement. “Once a person enters a correctional facility, they do not lose their most basic rights and become an open target for violence and abuse.”

According to the lawsuit filed last Thursday, 28 February 2021, a group of nine Muslim prisoners were praying in a common space when a corrections officer told them to stop.

The inmates say they had prayed together without issue three times earlier in the day and had also done so "hundreds of times in the months" prior.

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In this instance, twenty officers responded to the scene. Two of the inmates stopped praying and stepped away, while another two men also stopped praying but were then put in handcuffs.

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The five others were doused with pepper spray, some while they were handcuffed, and one prisoner was beaten, according to the lawsuit.

The inmates said that guards ultimately isolated seven of them in cells with pepper spray still covering their bodies. They were not provided medical evaluations, eye washes, showers, cleaning supplies, or medical advice, the lawsuit says.

“The treatment these incarcerees were reportedly subjected to is appalling and in complete violation not only of their legal rights but their basic human dignity,” Yasir Ali, who serves on the board of Cair-MI. “We are hopeful that justice will prevail in this case and those who are guilty will be held accountable.”

According to the lawsuit, one of the guards involved had been removed from meal delivery during the month of Ramadan a few years earlier, after telling some of the inmates that "he had PTSD from having been 'trained to kill Muslims in Afghanistan', and objecting that he now 'has to feed these mother****ers'."

Middle East Eye reached out to the Missouri Department of Corrections for comment on this story.

Several lawsuits have been filed in recent years dealing with the issue of Muslim inmates' ability to practise their faith while incarcerated.

Between 2017 and 2019, 16 religious freedom cases related to Muslim inmates were filed in federal court. More than 60 of those were about dietary needs, and another 34 were linked specifically to violations during the holy month of Ramadan.

In January, a federal court partly undid a decision made against a Muslim inmate, ruling that a Virginia jail must defend its practice of broadcasting Christian services on every television screen on Sundays.

The inmate has argued that the broadcasting of Christian services is a violation of the Constitution's freedom of religion clause.

In 2019, following a legal battle originating from a prison in Kentucky, the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its national guidelines to recommend the accommodation of group prayers.

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