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Michigan Prison Officials Held in Contempt for Violating Ramadan Order

A Michigan federal district court twice found state prison officials in contempt for failing to comply with its orders regarding the provision of “adequate nutrition during the Islamic Month of Ramadan.” As a result, they were ordered to pay monetary damages.

The orders came in a lawsuit filed by four Michigan prisoners who alleged violations of their rights under the First and Eighth Amendments, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction on June 14, 2013, requesting that they receive adequate nutrition during the 2013 Ramadan observance, during which devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown. The court denied the motion, but later clarified its order to require prison officials to provide fasting prisoners with at least 2,350 calories per day during Ramadan. Prior to the end of the month-long religious observance, the prisoners moved for contempt due to prison officials’ failure to provide the required calorie count. Although the defendants argued they had supplied an average of 2,350 calories per day, the court order specified a minimum 2,350 calories per day. Thus, the district court ordered the defendants to pay each plaintiff $200 in damages as compensation.

The prisoners sought a second preliminary injunction on May 28, 2014, asking that they receive 2,900 calories per day during the 2014 Ramadan observance. Upon the request of prison officials, the court ordered that fasting prisoners be provided “an average of 2,350 calories per day” during Ramadan, and required prison officials to submit weekly sworn affidavits as to the meals actually served.

The defendants provided the affidavits, stating that in each of the three prisons at issue – Lakeland Correctional Facility, Kinross Correctional Facility and Chippewa Correctional Facility – information supplied by Aramark, the prison system’s food service provider, demonstrated compliance with the court’s order.

However, plaintiffs Lamont Heard and William Johnson submitted “clear and convincing evidence that they were not provided certain items listed on the Ramadan menu and that substitute food items were not provided.” They filed affidavits and grievances with the court, which gave credence to the grievances that documented Aramark had shorted fasting prisoners on food items during Ramadan. The defendants did not dispute the grievances.

Therefore, the district court ordered prison officials to pay $250 to each plaintiff “as compensation for damages caused” by the defendants’ noncompliance with the court’s order. The court did not enter sanctions against defense counsel, finding he had reasonably relied on the sworn affidavits provided by prison officials.

In December 2015, ruling on an interlocutory appeal, the Sixth Circuit held the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity on the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment claim related to Ramadan meals that provided inadequate calories. “The defendants argue that there is no clearly established law requiring that prisoners receive a specific number of calories per day, here between 1,000 and 1,500 calories,” the appellate court wrote. “But it is clear that a prisoner has the clearly established right to a nutritionally adequate diet.... And it is clear that a diet consisting of 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day can violate that right.” See: Heard v. Finco, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 23152 (6th Cir. Dec. 21, 2015).

Following remand, on February 16, 2017 the district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in part, dismissing the prisoners’ First and Eighth Amendment claims related to the adequacy of food provided to fasting prisoners during Ramadan in 2013 and 2014. The court found the defendants had provided an adequate Ramadan menu, and “any shortage of food items occurred because [of] errors or mismanagement at the local facility level and not because the MDOC’s Ramadan diet was inadequate.” The plaintiffs’ claims related to Ramadan meals in 2011 and 2012 were allowed to proceed, and the case remains pending.

The prisoners are represented by attorney Dan E. Manville with the Michigan State University College of Law. See: Heard v. Finco, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:13-cv-00373-GJQ-RSK; 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21869. 

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Heard v. Finco

Heard v. Finco