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Jail Closes “God Pod,” Agrees to Accommodate Muslim Prisoners

Jail Closes “God Pod,” Agrees to Accommodate Muslim Prisoners

The Pierce County Jail (PCJ) in Washington State agreed to adopt new policies to protect the religious rights of Muslim prisoners as part of a settlement agreement in litigation brought by the ACLU of Washington and the Public Interest Law Group (PILG).

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in September 2010 on behalf of prisoners Larry Tarrer and Raymond Garland. It alleged that PCJ not only substantially burdened the exercise of their Muslim faith, but also “established a preference for non-Muslim inmates at the jail by providing them with opportunities for preferred housing and privileges in a special Christian-based unit known as the ‘God Pod.’”

That pod, officially named the Responsible Living Unit, was described in PCJ’s Inmate Information Booklet as “a voluntary Biblically based Christian program designed to empower men to learn to make good choices in life.” Prisoners housed in the God Pod were required to participate in Bible studies and other Christian activities. In return, they received more outdoor recreation time, more out-of-cell time, more visits from outside volunteers and more in-unit entertainment opportunities. PCJ’s chaplain implied Tarrer would not fit well into the unit, as he was not a Christian.

The complaint alleged that the PCJ failed to accommodate prisoners’ right to practice the Muslim religion. While jail officials provided kosher diets for Jewish prisoners, they only offered vegan or vegetarian options when Muslims requested a halal diet. Additionally, kosher but not halal food was available in the commissary.

The PCJ also failed to respect fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Tarrer had a medical condition that required him to take medication. When he requested that jail medical staff give him the medication at a time when he was not fasting, he was denied. He was told by the nursing supervisor, Mary Scott, that “[p]ill taking with a sip of water does not violate Ramadan.” The denial of his appeal on that issue called Tarrer’s concern about avoiding medication during Ramadan a religious “preference” that would not be accommodated. That left him to choose between his religion and his health.

Further, policies at the PCJ prohibited Muslim prisoners from engaging in regular group prayer, from wearing certain religious clothes and from possessing items integral to Islamic worship. The parties eventually reached a settlement agreement in the case that included several key provisions.

With respect to clothing, prisoners are now allowed to wear a kufi. While inside their unit, prisoners can “roll up both their pant hems to equal length so that they do not fall below the ankles, but no higher than two to four inches above the heel.”

Halal food will be made available at meals and in the PCJ’s commissary. During Ramadan, Muslim prisoners will be provided meals during non-fasting hours; the same applies for medications.

Muslim prisoners will be allowed to purchase prayer oil, prayer rugs and a miswak (a soft tooth-stick to clean teeth) through the commissary. They will also be permitted to meet in groups of up to 5, with one being a volunteer, “to gather for Jum’ah, Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha.” Jail staff will receive annual training on the First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“Persons of all faiths have a constitutional right to practice their religion,” said ACLU of Washington staff attorney La Rond Baker.

“The settlement recognizes that jail officials cannot arbitrarily favor certain religions over others or restrict an inmate’s religious exercise without a compelling reason,” added PILG attorney Hank Balson.

As part of the settlement, Pierce County agreed to pay $200,000 in attorney fees and costs. The jail no longer provides a “God Pod”; according to an ACLU press release, if a “similar unit is established in the future, it will be a secular program open to all eligible inmates regardless of religion.” See: Tarrer v. Pierce County,U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:10-cv-05670.


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Related legal case

Tarrer v. Pierce County