For the last three weeks, Muslims around the world have been observing the month of Ramadan by fasting from food and drink from dawn to sunset — a period of about 16 to 18 hours in the United States. The six to eight non-fasting hours, then, are an important time to recharge and rehydrate. Yet in at least two Virginia state prisons, according to civil rights groups, Muslims are being denied basic rights, despite constitutional protections and federal laws around religious freedom.
In one Virginia prison, Muslims known to be fasting are not being served breakfast before sunrise, while at another prison, Muslims are being forced to wait at least an hour or more after sunset to receive their dinners, according to a previously unreported letter sent to the Virginia Department of Corrections on Friday by Muslim Advocates, the Islamic Circle of North America’s Council for Social Justice, and the Virginia Prison Justice Network.
“Incarcerated Muslims have a critical right to religious liberty in prisons. Yet, Ramadan after Ramadan, we see prisons across the country needlessly deprive fasting inmates of adequate food and water, which not only disrupts the holiness of the month, but pressures Muslim inmates to choose between their Ramadan fast and their health,” said Nimra Azmi, a staff attorney at Muslim Advocates. “VDOC should act immediately to safeguard the free exercise rights of its Muslim inmates and allow them to observe Ramadan fully and freely.”
In addition to not being fed on time, incarcerated Muslims around the country also face obstacles when trying to congregate for Friday prayers and in getting their hands on copies of the Quran, said Rameez Abid, the outreach director at the ICNA Council for Social Justice, which runs a Muslim Prisoner Support Project. Earlier this year, in fact, Muslim Advocates sued a Florida county jail and Immigration and Customs Enforcement for such hurdles like lack of access to Qurans and an inability to pray as needed.
The Friday letter singles out the Red Onion State Prison in Pound, Virginia, and the River North Correctional Center in Independence, Virginia, but the groups say they believe such conditions are persistent throughout the Virginia prison system.
“We believe that Red Onion and River North are not the only facilities to be impacted by Ramadan-related issues,” the letter’s authors wrote, “and that this is reflective of a broader problem at VDOC facilities.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.
While it’s difficult to gauge the size of faith groups within overall prison populations, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey of prison chaplains found that Muslims make up 9 percent of the population in the prisons where those chaplains worked.
Muslims are also more likely to face arbitrary limitations on their religious practice, according to ICNA’s Muslim Prisoners Support Project, which launched in 2018 to support detained Muslims by offering prayer services, Islamic education, and other religious resources. From 1997 to 2008, Muslims in federal prison filed the greatest number of requests for administrative remedies regarding religious observance, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Religious Freedom.
With approximately 10 days until Ramadan ends, the three organizations are demanding that Muslims observing Ramadan at Virginia Department of Corrections facilities be served their meals in a timely manner and that they be given access to clean water throughout the night. The groups also called on the department to train its staff on Ramadan practices and increase oversight over meal delivery systems for the remainder of this Ramadan and in the future.
At Red Onion, prison staff have “repeatedly and purposefully failed to serve breakfast before sunrise to inmates known to be fasting,” the letter reads. As a result, detained Muslims are pressured to choose between eating that day or going without food or drink until the evening.
At River North, meanwhile, detained Muslims have been forced to wait an hour or more after sundown before receiving their dinners, extending an already 16-hourlong fast. River North staff have also denied fasting Muslims access to enough potable water after fasting hours, whereas the general population at both prisons “receive their food on time, are able to eat meals, and have access to drinkable water throughout the day,” according to the letter.
These conditions, the groups allege, violate the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, a federal statute that bars prisons from substantially burdening a prisoner’s ability to worship. Under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause, as well as RLUIPA, the government must provide a compelling reason for burdening a detained person’s religious observance.
The prisons’ actions “clearly run afoul of the protections enshrined in both RLUIPA and the First Amendment,” the letter reads. The department’s facilities also violate “RLUIPA and the Fourteenth Amendment by treating Muslim inmates on less than equal terms with other inmates and forcing them to go without meals, adequate clean water, and timely served meals — which are not denied to non-Muslim inmates.” The conditions also violate the Eighth Amendment, because “denying fasting inmates more than a cup or two of drinkable water a day falls far short” of obligations for humane conditions in prison.
Ultimately, said Abid, “these are various ways of aggression toward the Muslim community.”