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Civil Rights and Muslim Groups: Virginia Prisons Unlawfully Preventing Inmates from Observing Ramadan

Despite Warning Last Year, Anti-Muslim VA Prison Practices Persist During Ramadan

WASHINGTON, DC — Muslim Advocates, the Islamic Circle of North America’s Council for Social Justice and the Virginia Prison Justice Network are urging the Commonwealth of Virginia to stop denying incarcerated Muslims the right to observe Ramadan. In a letter sent to Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), the groups urge the commonwealth to implement policies to permit Muslim inmates in VDOC’s care to fast during the holy month. This letter follows up on religious freedom concerns from last year that informed VDOC of Muslim inmates being denied adequate and timely food and drink during Ramadan. Despite having an entire year to bring policies in line with federal law, it is clear that Virginia has not taken adequate action.

 “Last year, we warned the Virginia Department of Corrections about policies that were preventing incarcerated Muslims across the state from observing Ramadan. Shockingly, many of those problems persist,” said Muslim Advocates Staff Attorney Nimra Azmi. “The right of incarcerated people to observe Ramadan is protected by the law and the U.S. Constitution. Especially since the holy month of Ramadan is now upon us, Virginia state officials must take immediate steps to ensure that all Muslim prisoners can exercise their constitutional right to worship.”

The letter informs Virginia officials that incarcerated Muslims at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, VA report being told that because “too many” inmates have requested the ability to participate in Ramadan this year, prison management has ordered the chaplain to arbitrarily deny requests to be placed on the list of those observing Ramadan. If an inmate is not designated on the list, they will not be able to receive meals before fasting begins or after it ends, and thus, is barred from observing Ramadan. Prisoners also relay that Wallens Ridge staff refuse to designate them as Muslim or erroneously dismiss requests to be designated as such to limit the number of Muslim inmates who can fast.

“It is shocking that we still have to fight for these fundamental rights to worship,” said Rameez Abid, Director of Communications & Outreach for ICNA Council for Social Justice. “Ramadan is the most sacred month for Muslims around the world and the U.S. Constitution gives Muslim inmates the right to observe fasting. This shouldn’t even need to be to be demanded, but sadly, here we are.”

“COVID-19 has no boundaries but neither does one’s faith,” stated Margaret Breslau, co-founder and steering committee member of the Virginia Prison Justice Network. “Stop using the coronavirus crisis to restrict the constitutional right of Muslims to worship.”

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Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.