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Pro Se Virginia Prisoner Settles Religious Exercise Suit

Virginia state prisoner Rashid Qawi Al-Amin, proceeding pro se, reached a settlement with prison officials that requires them to purchase Islamic reading materials, CDs and DVDs for the prison chaplain’s library. The state also agreed to pay him $2,000.

Al-Amin, a prisoner at Greensville Correctional Center (GCC), filed a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2004. In 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson dismissed the case on procedural grounds, but it was reinstated by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals two years later. See: Al-Amin v. Shear, 218 Fed.Appx. 270 (4th Cir. 2007).

Judge Jackson dismissed the suit again in 2008, citing a lack of merit. The Fourth Circuit again reversed. See: Al-Amin v. Shear, 325 Fed.Appx. 190 (4th Cir. 2009). Al-Amin rejected an offer of counsel, and discovery ensued over the next two years. When Jackson set the matter for trial he asked the parties to try to settle the case.

The May 2011 settlement agreement requires prison officials to “purchase up to $2,500” of “new library materials which have been selected by the Muslim Chaplain Services as being appropriate and adequate to assist Muslim inmates in the study of their religion.”
Al-Amin was allowed to submit a list of proposed materials to be purchased for the library.

The settlement also requires prison officials to “hire and maintain a Muslim inmate” to work in the prison chaplain’s library at GCC. The duties of the Muslim Chaplain’s clerks will include performing “an annual inventory of the Muslim contents of the Chaplain’s library.” Further, prison officials will implement a process that allows prisoners to make donations to the library.

When he first arrived in prison, Al-Amin was known as Donald Tracey Jones. Shortly after he began serving a 52-year sentence for a drug-related murder, he converted to Islam and changed his name. Prison officials refused to acknowledge his Muslim name. The settlement changes that policy, and requires prison officials to amend their records “to permit Plaintiff to use the name Rashid Qawi Al-Amin in conjunction with his offender number to access services and property generally available to inmates.”

In addition to posting notices on GCC bulletin boards that list approved religions, plus “a statement that there shall be no discrimination by staff or prisoners based on their religious beliefs or practices,” prison officials must also include Muslim prisoners in the preparation of religious meals. Finally, the state agreed to pay Al-Amin $2,000 to cover the costs he incurred in litigating the case.

A prison chaplain’s association was not pleased with the outcome. “That’s a terrible settlement. It sets a very bad precedent,” said Gary Friedman, communications director for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. “Public funds should not be used to purchase sectarian materials.”

Prison officials and the state Attorney General’s Office had no comment on the terms of the settlement agreement. See: Al-Amin v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Vir.), Case No. 2:04-cv-00346-RAJ-FBS.

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Related legal case

Al-Amin v. Johnson