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Muslim Civil Rights Group Files Discrimination Suit Over Virginia Jail’s “God Pod”

by Matt Clarke

In November 2018, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of four Muslim prisoners at the Riverside Regional Jail in North Prince George, Virginia.

The complaint alleged that Riverside officials, including the jail’s superintendent, senior chaplain, food services supervisor, security chief and programs supervisor, discriminated against Muslims by creating a “God Pod” cellblock to house prisoners in a Christian-centric program. Participants in the “God Pod” received special privileges and were immersed in a Christian environment with daily Christian programming, while Muslim prisoners were denied regular religious services despite their availability.

Further, the jail officials allegedly discriminated against Muslim and other non-Christian prisoners by excluding them from the “God Pod.” Essentially, the lawsuit alleged that while being open to prisoners of all faiths on paper, the only non-Christians allowed into the “God Pod’ program were those willing to convert to Christianity.

Staff from the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, a religious group whose website says it has chaplains providing Bible-based programs in 22 states, runs the “God Pod” at the Riverside Regional Jail. The program is the only religious class allowed to be regularly provided at the jail, and participants in the “God Pod” are allegedly the only prisoners given religious study materials.

Mitchell Young, Desmond Horton, Dominic Robertson and Chris Mayo, the named plaintiffs in the suit, are represented by D.C.-based CAIR Legal Defense Fund attorneys Gadeir L. Abbas, Lena F. Masri and Carolyn M. Homer. They contended that, in addition to the requirement that prisoners in the “God Pod” agree to live in accordance with the Bible, effectively eliminating non-Christians, senior chaplain Joe Collins had repeatedly refused to allow outside religious volunteers into the jail to teach Islamic lessons. They said Collins had only allowed two Islamic classes to be taught at the jail in the first ten months of 2018.

The complaint also said the jail’s food services supervisor denied Muslim prisoners adequate food during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when eating and drinking during daylight hours is prohibited. Specifically, the suit claimed that prisoners participating in Ramadan were not allowed to store food in their cells and thus were dependent on the food service department for meals. However, for 20 of the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslim prisoners were not served breakfast until after the sun rose, forcing them to forego those meals. Even when given both the morning and evening meals properly, the daily calorie count was only 1,400 to 1,500 combined – less than the 2,400 to 2,600 calories recommended by dietary guidelines.

Additionally, the lawsuit alleged that chaplain Collins refused to add a prisoner to the Ramadan program who had converted to Islam early in Ramadan. Muslim prisoners requesting permission to receive pork-free meals were reportedly given a test regarding the core beliefs of Islam and their daily religious practices. Those who scored too low were denied pork-free meals.

The complaint said all of these practices violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, similar provisions in the Virginia Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000c, et seq. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on August 28, 2019, which remains pending. See: Young v. Newton, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Va.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00851-AJT-JFA.

Meanwhile, the Riverside Regional Jail ended the “God Pod” program upon the “advice of counsel,” according to September 2019 news reports. 

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Additional sources: cair.com, startribune.com, richmond.com