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Florida ICE Detention Center Restricts Detainees’ Observance of Ramadan

by Steve Horn

In the midst of Ramadan, the holiest month of the year for those of the Islamic faith, the Glades County Detention Center in Florida implemented a policy that banned some Muslim prisoners from participating in the religious observance.

One of the most fundamental parts of Ramadan is fasting from sunrise to sunset, which Glades County did not allow some immigrant detainees to do during the month-long period from May 15 to June 14, 2018. It was a story first reported by The Intercept, an investigative news outlet. The Detention Center also doubles as a jail for the county.

The Muslim detainees came by way of Somalia, seeking asylum in Senegal and – for a yet to be explained reason – somehow ended up in the United States. A war-torn nation, Somalia has been mired in civil conflict for decades and the detainees were reportedly brought to the U.S. via what was described as a modern-day “slave ship,” shackled on an airplane chartered by the Air Operations division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The United States has actively intervened in Somalia, with covert special operations troops on the ground running a secret Central Intelligence interrogation center, as well as launching drone strikes.

“[O]ne of the men on the plane and an attorney for two others said ICE deprived the Somalis of adequate food and water, and access to a working bathroom, during their two-day detention on board, forcing them to urinate in empty water bottles or, when they ran out of the bottles, on themselves,” Newsweek reported. “The Somalis also claim that the plane’s air-conditioning system was dysfunctional, making it hard to breathe in the crowded cabin. One of the immigrants also says he and another Somali were hit in the face by ICE agents on board.”

The detainees on the flight from Somalia to the U.S. filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in December 2017 against ICE, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Glades County Sheriff David Hardin.

“When the plane’s toilets overfilled with human waste, some of the detainees were left to urinate into bottles or on themselves,” the complaint states. “ICE agents wrapped some who protested, or just stood up to ask a question, in full-body restraints. ICE agents kicked, struck, or dragged detainees down the aisle of the plane, and subjected some to verbal abuse and threats.” See: Ibrahim v. Assistant Field Office Director, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:17-cv-24574-DPG.

Yet the abuse did not end once they arrived at the Glades County Detention Center.

“Ramadan List”

The Intercept’s scoop came after it obtained a letter written by Muslim Advocates and Americans for Immigrant Justice (MMAIJ), since published online, which set forth the operative facts. The letter explained that the Glades County Detention Center maintained a “Ramadan list,” which allowed designated members of the Islamic faith to participate in Ramadan. But some of the detainees were denied a spot on the list without justification, according to the letter.

And those who were on the list? The letter said they were essentially punished with cold food that had sat out between three to eight hours after being served to the rest of the facility’s population. One prisoner told MMAIJ the food was “hard to swallow,” and that it was “very poor” and “cold and not enough.”

“A few men have reported that meals served at night often include a meat product that smells rotten,” the letter stated. “They have mentioned that they are not able to eat the food because it is either not halal [consistent with Islamic dietary laws] or is inedible.”

By contrast, Christian prisoners reportedly received preferential treatment.

“[T]heir requests are granted quickly and often with the personal involvement of the Chaplain,” according to the letter. “Muslim requests for accommodation, meanwhile, are routinely denied, delayed [and] second-guessed.”

ICE responded by saying it would look into the matter. Over a month later, though, there were no public reports of what the agency learned or did as a result.

“Accusations of misconduct involving agency employees and its contractors are taken seriously and will be investigated thoroughly,” ICE spokesperson Nestor Yglesias told The Intercept. “Should these allegations be substantiated, appropriate action will be taken. ICE employees and contractors are held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct.”

Detainees’ Religious Rights

Legally, the Glades County Detention Center may be on shaky ground under ICE’s guidelines and federal law. The Intercept pointed to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits the government from substantially burdening prisoners’ religious exercise and parallels the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The 2011 ICE National Detention Standards, too, include language regarding the free exercise of religion.

“Detainees shall have opportunities to engage in practices of their religious faith consistent with safety, security and the orderly operation of the facility,” read the ICE standards. “Religious practices to be accommodated are not limited to practices that are compulsory, central or essential to a particular faith tradition, but cover all sincerely held religious beliefs.”

According to a previous story published by The Intercept, the DHS Office of the Inspector General is investigating conditions and treatment of detainees at the Glades County Detention Center.

A Status of Medical Issues of Somali Detainees report submitted to the district court on July 18, 2018, reviewed by Prison Legal News, catalogued the numerous medical problems currently faced by detainees held at the Detention Center, including pain and numbness in wrists, nerve damage, blurry vision and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

According to a recent report by the Vera Institute, “In building the [detention center], Glades County aligned itself politically with the increased criminalization of immigration. This investment in immigration detention was made possible through the Glades Correctional Development Corporation (GCDC), a nonprofit incorporated in 2002 for the express purpose of building the jail. To fund construction, the GCDC issued tax-exempt bonds for the entire cost – $33 million.”

Former Glades County Sheriff Stuart Whiddon, who left office in early 2017, now sits on the Board of Directors for GCDC, which manages the repayment of the bond debt to investors. 



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Related legal case

Ibrahim v. Assistant Field Office Director