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Oregon: Muslim Prison Visitor Receives $40,000 for Discrimination, Retaliation

The Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) agreed to pay a female Muslim visitor $40,000 for religious discrimination and retaliation by state prison guards.

Myell Thompson, who converted to the Islamic faith, wears a traditional head covering known as a hijab. A hijab and other modest clothing are mandated by the Qur’an, and Thompson said it is important for her to wear her hijab around men who are not her immediate family members.

When she went to visit her husband at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), however, a guard ordered her to remove the hijab, calling it a “scarf.” Thompson refused, arguing that it was a religious head covering, not a scarf. She asked to see a copy of the ODOC policy on religious headgear. Instead, guards gave her a one-page document with a highlighted passage that stated, “paraphernalia associated with security-threat groups or [that] create undue attention or conflict are prohibited.”

“They were lumping my hijab in with gang clothing,” said Thompson. When she complained, she was subjected to months of pervasive retaliatory discrimination and harassment by visitation room staff at OSP.

Guards required her and her children to wait long periods of time before her husband was called for their visits. Other times, her visits were cut short for no reason. Guards repeatedly slammed her bag on the counter and acted aggressively towards her.

“We don’t want your kind here,” they would say. “What are you doing here?” Thompson and her children frequently left the prison in tears.

She complained to then-OSP Superintendent Jeff Premo and the prison’s chaplain, but they ignored her. So she hired Salem lawyer Kevin Lafky, who served ODOC officials with notice of her intent to sue.

“It looks like I was just in it for the money now,” Thompson stated. “But all I ever really wanted was to visit my husband, and have us treated with respect. I get that some people fear I’m hiding something in my hijab, many believe all Muslims are terrorists. But if they get to know me and other Muslim women, they will learn we are proud people exercising our faith. We just want to visit quietly like others.”

In the rarest of moves, the ODOC responded to the notice of intent on May 31, 2016 by sending Thompson a letter of apology signed by retiring Superintendent Premo and Garrett Laney, OSP’s Assistant Superintendent of Security.

“On behalf of the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), please accept our sincere regret and apology for the way you were treated at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP),” they wrote. “We acknowledge that you were informed that you could not wear your religious headpiece while visiting OSP. The visiting staff should never have made comments about your religion or your religious attire. We are truly sorry that you were confronted by an OSP staff member (who is no longer employed with ODOC) in the visiting area.”

Accompanying the letter was a settlement offer of $40,000 and a copy of the ODOC’s policy on promoting and maintaining a respectful workplace. The policy establishes a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council to track, monitor and support diversity and inclusion within the state’s prison system.

“Myell has honestly been driven by principle from the beginning,” noted Lafky, her attorney. “It has always been about improving the experience for visitors like her. She was treated inappropriately, and it was her desire that it not happen again.”

Lafky applauded the rare, pre-litigation apology and settlement. “I give the state credit for doing that,” he said. “What remains to be seen is whether there will be a serious commitment going forward, in training and supervision, to prevent this from happening again.” 

Source: Statesman Journal

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