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US federal prisons to allow Muslim group prayers

Federal Bureau of Prisons changes its national guidelines to allow congregational prayers for Muslim prisoners
Muslims believe that group prayer has more spiritual benefits and garners more rewards from God than praying alone (AFP/File photo)

American Muslims will be allowed to perform group prayers in federal prisons, granting them rights long afforded to followers of other faiths, a rights group said.

Muslim Advocates, a DC-based group, said on Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Prisons had changed its national guidelines to recommend the accommodation of group prayers following an appeal filed in a Kentucky-based lawsuit.

The rights group had filed the lawsuit on behalf of William Doyle, an inmate at United States Penitentiary McCreary in Kentucky, alleging that existing laws were unfairly preventing Muslims from performing congregational prayers.

Muslims believe that prayers in congregation, known as Salat al-Jama'ah, have more spiritual benefits and garner more reward from God than praying alone.

In a statement, Muslim Advocates said that while prison staff, citing security concerns, had prevented Doyle and other Muslim inmates from praying in large groups, those of other faiths were allowed to violate the policy.

Inmates were also allowed to congregate in significantly larger groups for other activities like sports or card games, it said. 

"What happened at McCreary is an insult to religious freedom," Matt Callahan, a staff attorney for Muslim Advocates, said in a statement on Wednesday. 

"This new group prayer guidance sends a clear signal to all prisons that the right to pray should not be denied, regardless of faith," Callahan said. 

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Doyle's lawsuit over his right to practice group prayer was initially dismissed, but after his lawyers took it to an appeals court, Penitentiary McCreary withdrew its restrictive policies and the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its national guidelines. 

Still, the group said there was a substantial amount of work to be done in making sure prison officials actually follow the new guidelines. 

"Unfortunately, we believe many of the 142 federal prisons are likely ignoring their obligation to ensure the right to pray at their facilities," Callahan said. 

Doyle's case is one of several suits taken up by Muslim Advocates on behalf of prisoners in the US. 

Between October 2017 and January 2019, about 163 lawsuits were filed in which Muslims alleged their right to practice their religion was being violated, according to a comprehensive report released by Muslim Advocates in July. 

In March, the group sued a Florida county jail for denying five Muslim detainees the ability to pray and access Qurans, religiously compliant meals and other religious necessities. 

Amid high rates of conversion in prisons, Muslims make up about nine percent of the US prison population, despite amounting to only about one percent of the general population, according to the group's report.