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Segregated Massachusetts Nation of Islam Prisoners Entitled to Halal Menu and Jum’ah Prayers; $237,299.25 in Attorney Fees Awarded

The U.S. District Court for Massachusetts granted declaratory relief to two maximum-security Nation of Islam (NOI) prisoners who had sued for a Halal (Muslim religious dietary) menu and participation in daily Jum’ah prayers. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ requests for meal preparation by Muslim prisoners, prayer rugs, and monetary damages. Over $250,000 in attorney fees and costs were awarded.

Mac S. Hudson and Derick Tyler are two long-term maximum security prisoners housed in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Cedar Junction (MCI-CJ) in Walpole. They profess to adhere to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which include following the five pillars of the Muslim faith with an overlay of a Black supremacy doctrine and the belief that Elijah Muhammad succeeded Prophet Muhammad.

Asserting that their right to religious exercise was abridged in administrative segregation, Hudson, Tyler and several other prisoners sued Massachusetts DOC (MDOC) Commissioner Kathleen Dennehy under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)) and state civil rights statutes.

Appointed counsel filed an amended complaint, which resulted in a six-day bench trial.
One issue was that MDOC provided special dietary meals to Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, vegetarians and medical patients. But MDOC officials claimed that NOI prisoners were adequately served by eating the prison’s vegetarian menu, a conclusion that had been reached in other jurisdictions: Allah v. Jordan-Luster, Case No. 04-1083 (C.D. Ill. 2007) (2007 WL 2582199); Spruel v. Clarke, Case No. C06-5021RJB (W.D.
Wash. 2007) (2007 WL 1577729); and Pratt v. Corr. Corp. of America, Case No. 03-3259 (D. Minn. 2006) (2006 WL 2375656), aff’d, 267 Fed.Appx. 482 (8th Cir. 2008).

The court found in this case that the plaintiffs’ complaint focused on obtaining a Halal menu consistent with their religious beliefs, rather than on demands for specific types of food such as meat (the MDOC already provided Muslim prisoners with Halal meat for Eid feasts).

The district court found unpersuasive MDOC’s argument that enmity from non-NOI prisoners could cause strife and thus serve as a “compelling penological interest” to justify restricting special menus for NOI prisoners. The few special dietary meals served to other religious groups had not validated this concern. The court held that MCI-CJ’s “alternative vegetarian” diet was not a satisfactory substitute, because “in many significant respects” it did not conform to the plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs.

The court suggested the possibility of vendor-prepared packaged meals for the 50 to 90 Muslim prisoners at MCI-CJ. Left to negotiation were specifics as to the source and form of the Halal meals – which could end up becoming prison-prepared vegetarian meals more responsive to NOI needs than the standardized “alternative vegetarian” fare.

The plaintiffs’ request for personal participation in Jum’ah daily group prayers was found to be inconsistent with SMU segregation security needs. However, non-SMU Muslim prisoners had access to Jum’ah services via institutional TV, and prison officials agreed that it would be possible to extend that option to SMU prisoners, which was ordered by the court.

A request that only Muslim prisoners be allowed to prepare meals for other Muslim prisoners was denied, as was a request for prayer rugs. In the latter regard, the court agreed with security concerns raised by MDOC officials and found that the use of towels as a substitute for prayer rugs was a reasonable accommodation.

Accordingly, the court granted declaratory relief and ordered the parties to propose a final judgment that included a “Halal menu” option and closed-circuit TV access to Jum’ah prayers for SMU prisoners. See: Hudson v. Dennehy, 538 F.Supp.2d 400 (D.Mass. 2008).

Although monetary damages were denied, on July 25, 2008 the court awarded plaintiffs’ counsel $237,299.25 in attorneys’ fees and $13,630.17 in costs. See: Hudson v. Dennehy, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 01-cv-12145-RGS; 2008 WL 2856416.

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Hudson v. Dennehy

Hudson v. Dennehy