Muslim immigrants detained at a Florida jail made more than 20 requests — orally and in writing — for religious accommodation throughout last year. Their asks were simple: They wanted their meals to be religiously compliant, to be able to make their five daily prayers without obstruction, and to have access to basic items like prayer rugs and copies of the Quran.
The officials at the Glades County Detention Center, which doubles as an immigration detention center, ignored or denied those requests, according to five Muslim men at the facility.
Now, they’re suing. On Wednesday, the men, all of whom came to the United States as refugees from Somalia, sued the Glades County sheriff and other county employees, as well as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for denying their ability to freely practice their faith, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law.
The lawsuit, which has not been previously reported, was brought by Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights group, and Americans for Immigrant Justice, a Florida-based immigrant rights group.
“Glades County Detention Center for more than a year has been preventing Somali Muslim men from practicing their faith in various ways,” said Yusuf Saei, a fellow at Muslim Advocates. “ICE doesn’t seem to care about it and is knowingly allowing it to occur.”
The groups brought this lawsuit to vindicate their clients’ rights, Saei said. “We want to ensure that, going forward, Glades is going to treat Muslim detainees and detainees of all faiths respectfully,” he said. “It’s important to us that ICE take the protection of immigration detainees seriously and that it actually enforce its detention standards.”
ICE declined to comment, citing pending litigation. The Glades County Sheriff’s Office did not return a request for comment.
For people of faith who are detained by ICE, religious practice often helps them cope with the grim conditions and uncertainty they face. “You know, it’s just the belief that you have that you don’t have no control of everything, so, you know, that’s what keeps us going, just prayers,” Ibrahim Musa, who spent more than a year in immigration detention, told me last year.
There are, however, often obstacles to that. In ICE detention, “visits from clergy, access to religious material, and opportunities to engage in religious worship can be infrequent, inconsistent and in some cases absent altogether,” the Religion News Service reported.
“ICE doesn’t seem to care about it and is knowingly allowing it to occur.”
The allegations are of a piece with patterns of misconduct at ICE detention centers across the country, and at the Glades jail specifically. The lawsuit brings into sharp focus the lack of independent oversight over ICE’s facilities — where tens of thousands of immigrants are locked up on any given day — which allows systemic abuses and the deprivation of fundamental rights to run unchecked.
The lawsuit is just the latest development in a nearly 15-month-old saga for a group of Somalis whom ICE tried, and failed, to deport in December 2017. Their deportation flight to Somalia was interrupted by a technical problem with the airplane; after spending more than 24 hours in shackles on a runway in Dakar, Senegal, they were brought back to the United States. They said that they’d been subject to physical and verbal abuse on the 48-hour flight. (ICE has denied those allegations, which are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.)
About half of the group was transferred to the Krome Detention Center in Miami, while the rest were sent to Glades. At the county jail, they reported additional abuses, like the use of pepper spray as a form of punishment and lack of access to proper medical care. Jail officials’ hindrance of the Muslims’ religious practice has also been a consistent issue, which Muslim Advocates and Americans for Immigrant Justice raised in a letter to ICE during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. (“Accusations of misconduct involving agency employees and its contractors are taken seriously and will be investigated thoroughly,” ICE spokesperson Nestor Yglesias told me at the time.)
“For the Somalis, the way they were treated as far as their religious worship is part and parcel of their treatment from the time they were detained and flown to Dakar and sat on the tarmac,” said Lisa Lehner, an attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice who is representing the plaintiffs in their litigation against ICE. “It’s just a continuation of a deprivation of their rights.”
The lawsuit enumerates a series of instances in which officials at Glades, including the chaplain and ICE officers who are posted at the jail, denied or got in the way of the plaintiffs’ religious observance. It started in December 2017: When the plaintiffs arrived at Glades, employees at the jail did not ask them about their religious preferences. The delay in making note of the men’s faith impacted their religious observance, and they waited about seven weeks to get copies of the Quran, according to the lawsuit.
John Booher, the chaplain at Glades who is a defendant in the lawsuit, had previously denied Quran requests from Muslim detainees, the lawsuit charges, citing records obtained under Florida’s public records law. The lawsuit accuses Booher of giving preferential treatment to detained Christians, pointing to the fact that he sought out volunteers to set up a Christian ministry at the jail, but did not do the same for the Muslims. (Like Glades, many jails and prisons do not have a Muslim chaplain on staff, though it is common practice for facilities to bring in a Muslim religious leader at regular intervals to provide pastoral care for detained persons, Saei of Muslim Advocates said.)
Reading from the Quran is an important part of Muslim religious observance because it allows adherents to connect with God, said Abdul Hamid Samra, the Muslim chaplain at the University of Miami. “Reciting the word of God is going to touch their heart and it’s going to help them overcome their difficulties or whatever situation they’re in,” Samra said.
Other allegations in the lawsuit have to do with the five daily prayers, a fundamental tenet of Islam. Adherents to the religion believe they must perform ablution before prayer and pray in a ritually clean place while facing Mecca. Congregational prayer is encouraged when possible, but especially on Fridays, when the afternoon prayer is preceded by a sermon.
“The way they were treated as far as their religious worship is part and parcel of their treatment from the time they were detained and flown to Dakar and sat on the tarmac.”
Glades staff have impeded the plaintiffs’ ability to congregate for Friday prayers, known colloquially as Jumma, which means “Friday” in Arabic. On at least one occasion, jailers cancelled Jumma “without providing an alternative space for the prayer to be held,” according to the lawsuit. Following a complaint from one of the plaintiffs, Glades designated a different area for Friday prayer. “The designated area, however, is wholly inappropriate for prayer, given that it is caged, has deep sand on the ground, and is not ritually clean. Furthermore, there is no bathroom outside or any area nearby where the men can perform necessary ablutions.”
Glades has not provided the plaintiffs with a compass to discern whether they are praying in the right direction. The commissary does not sell religious artifacts like prayer beads, rugs, or kufis, a knit cap that some Muslim men wear as religious headgear. Glades staff forbade one of the plaintiffs from wearing a kufi, saying that head coverings are not allowed.
“The basic right is that they should be provided with a space to pray and all that is necessary to do the prayer,” Samra said, including the ability to perform ablution and to pray in a clean place.
Also at issue is the plaintiffs’ access to religiously compliant meals, including halal meat. (Halal is the Arabic word for permissible, and when it comes to food, the concept refers to dietary standards that Muslims follow.) In response to requests from the plaintiffs for halal food, Glades staff said they can only provide vegetarian meals. In 2017, ICE deportation officers who work at Glades questioned whether Muslims actually believe in eating halal food, and suggested that Muslims who want halal food should go to Krome, which does offer halal meals.
The plaintiffs argue that the availability of halal meals at Krome — which is about 100 miles southeast of Glades, which is located in Moore Haven, Florida — shows that Glades could obtain halal food options if it wanted to.
Booher, the chaplain, responded to one request for a halal meal by saying “all you have to do is ask for a common fare meal,” according to the lawsuit. “However, the vegetarian or ‘common fare’ meal at GCDC does not satisfy the Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs,” the lawsuit reads. “Nor could there be a legitimate interest in denying Plaintiffs a nutritionally complete halal diet, when GCDC is designed specifically to house diverse immigration detainees and when ICE’s Krome Detention Facility already provides certified halal meals at cost.”
The Somali Muslims’ experiences at Glades amount to a violation of their religious freedom under the First Amendment, the lawsuit charges. Glades and ICE are also in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a state law that has been interpreted to be more protective than its federal counterparts. Under the U.S. Constitution and those statutes, it is illegal for the government to substantially burden religious exercise, unless it establishes that it has a compelling interest for doing so, and that it is using the least restrictive means to accomplish that interest. The plaintiffs argue that the various obstacles to their religious practice constitute a substantial burden that is not supported by a compelling interest.
In addition to the potential illegality of Glades’s actions toward the detained Somalis, advocates say that the religious observance issues at Glades tell one part of a much bigger story about ICE’s systemic failure to keep a watchful eye over its contractors.
Glades County, which has a contract with ICE, is required to abide by the 2000 National Detention Standards, the least stringent of guidelines for detention promulgated by ICE. The immigration agency, in turn, has an obligation to enforce adherence to those standards.
The National Detention Standards include an entire section on religious practice, which, among other things, requires detention facilities to enter a detained person’s religious preference during intake processing.
Through public records requests, the plaintiffs’ attorneys obtained emails between Juan Acosta, the assistant field director at ICE’s Miami office, and Keith Henson, the Glades County chief deputy, that were exchanged following the advocates’ June letter about Ramadan observance.
“Glades wasn’t upfront with ICE about the conditions, and ICE appears to have taken the facility at its word.”
Acosta asked Henson whether the allegations in the letter were true. “To my knowledge, there have been no requests or grievances from any members of the population addressing any of the outlandishly inaccurate accusations in this letter,” Henson wrote back. The lawsuit notes that, at the time Henson wrote that email, the plaintiffs had submitted at least 15 requests or grievances on various issues of religious observance.
“Glades wasn’t upfront with ICE about the conditions,” Saei said, “and ICE appears to have taken the facility at its word, which is highly problematic because the facility is required to comply with ICE’s contract detention standards, and ICE is supposed to be observing compliance with those standards.”
A June 2018 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General found systemic shortcomings in ICE’s inspections of its facilities to ensure compliance with detention standards. “Although ICE’s inspections, follow-up processes, and onsite monitoring of facilities help correct some deficiencies, they do not ensure adequate oversight or systemic improvements in detention conditions, with some deficiencies remaining unaddressed for years,” the inspector general found.
At Glades, the consequence of those failures are that “individuals like the Somalis are going to suffer deprivation of constitutional rights,” said Lehner, the Americans for Immigrant Justice attorney. She pointed out that the carefree attitude of officials at Glades came during a year in which conditions at the jail were the subject of litigation and complaints to the inspector general by her organization.
“If you have the officials and the staff at Glades thinking they can do all of this while there’s a federal judge who’s involved with the detainees at some level, what will they do when there’s absolutely no oversight? During this whole year, there were lawyers going back and forth, which can’t be a usual course of affairs,” Lehner said. “To me, it’s a really frightening possibility.”