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Federal Court Finds Texas Violates Rights of Muslim Prisoners

Federal Court Finds Texas Violates Rights of Muslim Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

On April 30, 2014, a federal district court held that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) was violating the constitutional rights of Muslim prisoners by limiting their religious services to one hour per week unless a volunteer was available to oversee the services.

That was the most recent decision in a long-running class-action lawsuit filed by Texas Muslim prisoners in 1969, Brown v. Livingston, which was settled by consent decree in 1977. The consent decree gave the prisoners the right to pork-free meals, to possess Islamic literature and religious items, and to hold religious meetings without a prison chaplain or civilian religious volunteer present. During the ensuing 35 years, no disciplinary action was taken against prisoners for activities occurring during an Islamic religious meeting. The district court used that unblemished record to support its finding that allowing Muslim prisoners to meet for religious services without direct supervision did not present a threat to institutional security or safety.

As of May 31, 2013, the TDCJ’s population stood at 151,139 prisoners, 139,722 of whom expressed preferences for one of ten recognized faith groups. This included 88,504 Protestants, 31,432 Catholics, 6,775 Muslims, 4,418 Native American religion adherents, 1,740 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 896 Jews.

Jehovah’s Witness prisoners had sued the TDCJ seeking the same right to meet without supervision. That case settled in 2012, resulting in the “Scott Plan” in which each religious group with no volunteer was allowed to meet for one hour a week under the supervision of a guard. Applying this rule to all prisoners drastically reduced the number of hours a week Muslims could meet, but had little effect on Christian religious meetings, which average six hours a week.

Prison rules implementing the Scott Plan specifically prohibited prisoners from having meetings of more than four people for religious purposes but did not prohibit such meetings for any other purpose, such as games, sports or to discuss a book or television show. After initiating the Scott Plan on January 1, 2012, the TDCJ filed a motion to terminate the Brown consent decree pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which resulted in the district court’s April 2014 ruling.

The court held that the “practices of Jum’ah, Taleem and Qur’anic studies are indispensable to a Muslim’s exercise of his religious beliefs.” Jum’ah is a mandatory weekly congregational service held on Friday shortly after noon. Taleem is religious instruction on the tenets of Islam, and is the only sanctioned way for a new convert to learn about the religion since Islam emphasizes religious instruction rather than individual study. Qur’anic studies, including the study of the Arabic language, are essential to the understanding of Islam and mandated by the Islamic holy text, the Qur’an.

The district court found that it would be impossible to hold Jum’ah, much less Taleem and Qur’anic studies, in a single hour a week – especially since much of that time is taken up with prisoner movements and counts. Thus, the one-hour weekly cap significantly burdened Muslim prisoners’ practice of Islam. The court also held that allowing prisoners to meet for other purposes while barring them from congregating for religious purposes was a form of content discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.

It was undisputed that the practice of religion improves prison safety. TDCJ officials and prisoners both testified that participation in religious activities had a calming, disciplining, positive and rehabilitative effect on prisoners.

Further, there was no evidence that having an outside volunteer present during religious meetings contributed to security. Experts from other jurisdictions, including Florida and New York, testified that prison systems in those states had experienced no security problems with prisoner-led Islamic services.

The district court noted that some Texas prisons are located in rural areas where few, if any, Muslims live, making the recruitment of outside Muslim volunteers virtually impossible. That may explain why the TDCJ had approved over 18,000 Protestant religious volunteers but fewer than 400 Muslim volunteers, and why 333 of the TDCJ’s 385 certified volunteer chaplain assistants were Protestant but none were Muslim.

In addition, 102 of the TDCJ’s 121 chaplains identified themselves as Christian and the five Muslim chaplains were assigned to serve about 30 facilities each. The court also noted that the TDCJ concentrated prisoners of the Jewish and Native American faiths in a few facilities to facilitate their religious services, but did not do so for Muslim prisoners. It found that these policies were not neutrally applied and that, in fact, the TDCJ had promoted Protestantism in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The TDCJ’s actions also violated the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Therefore, the district court held that specified provisions of the original consent decree should be continued in force while the remainder of the consent decree was terminated. The retained provisions require that the TDCJ not discriminate against Muslim prisoners, permit Islamic religious services to be held without the supervision of a volunteer or chaplain when they are unavailable, and allow at least 6 hours of Muslim religious activities per week. See: Brown v. Livingston, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Texas), Case No. 4:69-cv-00074.

The state appealed the judgment to the Fifth Circuit, which stayed the lower court’s order. Meanwhile, the district court awarded $291,710 in attorney fees and $12,289.57 in costs against TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston in his official capacity; the court also awarded $24,042 in attorney fees to interveners in the case. The appeal remains pending, with the Fifth Circuit hearing oral argument on August 31, 2015.  

Additional source: Houston Chronicle

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Related legal case

Brown v. Livingston