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Pro Se Muslim Prisoner Reaches Religious Rights Settlement Agreement with Virginia Prison Officials

Pro Se Muslim Prisoner Reaches Religious Rights Settlement Agreement with Virginia Prison Officials

by David M. Reutter

A pro se Virginia prisoner has entered into a settlement agreement with prison officials that provides him a $2,250 cash payment and a change in policies surrounding the provision to allow prisoners to celebrate Muslim feasts and their yearly fast.

Prisoner William R. Couch brought an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), claiming that his rights to freedom of religious expression pursuant to the First and Fifth Amendments and RLUIPA had been violated by Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) employees.

The cash settlement includes the $250 that Couch, who is held at Keen Mountain Correctional Center, paid to file the action. The other provisions of the settlement detail specific actions that VDOC must take to ensure that the religious rights Couch enjoys in prison will not be violated. The entire VDOC prison population that practices the Muslim faith will be affected because the settlement requires VDOC to modify its Division Operating Procedures, Institutional Operating Procedures and Food Service Provisions that concern matters under the agreement.

According to that agreement, prison officials must determine the dates for Ramadan in advance by mutual agreement with Couch and the assistance of an expert from the Islamic Center of Virginia (ICV) if needed.

“The Eid Ul Fitr prayer service shall be for the morning after the last day of fasting shall be held before noon.” In addition, the “Eid Ul Fitr meal will be held no earlier than the first day after the last day of the Ramadan fast, nor no later than the third day after the last day of the Ramadan fast.”

If Couch requests it, prison officials will schedule the Eid Ul Adha prayer service and meal at a mutually agreed upon time approximately four months after Ramadan and the ICV expert can be requested to determine the appropriate date.

Most impressive was the requirement that VDOC employees “will not schedule a quarterly lockdown during the Ramadan period.” A lockdown may, however, occur if an emergency necessitates it. Finally, prison officials must make sure “Couch and other participating Sunni Muslim inmates” are “served a hot breakfast and hot dinner consistent with that served non-fasting inmates.” They must also be provided a meal each evening and the total calories and nutrition provided in the meals to fasting inmates will equal or exceed that provided to non-fasting inmates during the same period.”

This is a rare and significant victory for a prisoner acting pro se. See: Couch v. Jabe, USDC, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division, Case No: 7:05-cv-00642. The voluntary dismissal order provides for the court to retain jurisdiction to enforce the Settlement Agreement reached on March 16, 2007. Previous proceedings in this case were reported in the August 2008 PLN.

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Related legal case

Couch v. Jabe