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$102,500 Settlement in Lawsuit Over Alaska DOC’s Discrimination Against Muslims

by Matt Clarke

On September 3, 2019, the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) settled a lawsuit brought by two Muslim prisoners who had been given inadequate food or no food during the fast of Ramadan, were denied religious congregation rights, and were denied the right to hold religious services and studies. The $102,500 settlement covers damage, attorney fees and costs, in addition to policy changes.

State prisoners Anas A. Dowl and Ernest A. Jacobson were incarcerated at the Anchorage Correctional Complex, where Muslim prisoners were not permitted to congregate on Friday or conduct religious studies. The reason given by the administration was a lack of qualified outside religious leaders, but that excuse was used for years. During that period, a variety of non-Islamic religious groups were allowed to congregate and conduct studies.

Muslim prisoners could observe the month-long, dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramadan, and were given two cold sack meals after sundown. However, the meals contained only 550 to approximately 1,100 calories (depending on which particular meals were provided) – far less than the 2,600 daily caloric intake recommended by the federal government and provided as hot meals to the rest of the prisoner population. Further, some meals allegedly contained pork products, which practicing Muslims cannot consume.

Because they were starving, Muslim prisoners began hoarding food in their cells during the daytime to eat after sundown during Ramadan. Sometimes they were able to trade the pork-containing bologna to other prisoners for hamburgers, which they could eat, but they remained hungry all the time.

The Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) provided attorneys Lena F. Masri, Gadeir L. Abbas and Carolyn M. Home to assist Dowl and Jacobson in filing a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(a) et seq., alleging cruel and unusual punishment, religious discrimination, interference with free exercise of religion, and unequal treatment in violation of the First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Shortly after a phone call with their CAIR attorneys, guard Deborah Luper searched the plaintiffs’ cell and confiscated all food items, including the sack meals they were to eat that night. When asked why she was doing this, Looper replied that the DOC commissioner had sent an email stating Muslim prisoners fasting for Ramadan were prohibited from storing food in their cells. She said she was confiscating the food and taking them off the Ramadan list as punishment for storing the food in violation of the new policy (of which they had not been informed). Thereafter, Dowl and Jacobson had nothing to eat for several days but were eventually put back on the Ramadan list.

In settling the lawsuit, in addition to the monetary payment the DOC agreed to implement policies to place prisoners on the Ramadan list within a day of their request and to provide those observing Ramadan with a minimum of two hot, pork-free meals containing a minimum of 3,000 total calories between sunset and dawn during the holy month. The DOC also agreed to allow Muslim prisoners to congregate for weekly religious services on Friday, congregate five times a day for prayers, participate in an Islamic study group, and facilitate their own religious services, study groups and prayers. See: Dowl v. Williams, U.S.D.C. (D. Alaska), Case No. 3:18-cv-00119-HRH. 


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Related legal case

Dowl v. Williams