April 7, 2021
Issue: Religious Freedom
Muslim Advocates Sues Virginia Prison for Records on Treatment of Muslims
Muslims at Wallens Ridge Allegedly Prevented from Observing Ramadan, Experienced Violence and Unhygienic Conditions
Washington, DC — On Tuesday, Muslim Advocates sued the Virginia Department of Corrections for records related to prisoner complaints at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, VA. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Gay Gardner, a Virginia resident and advocate with Interfaith Action for Human Rights who has received numerous complaints about abusive treatment by Wallens Ridge staff towards incarcerated Muslims including physical violence, retaliation, unhygenic conditions and practices that prevent Muslims from receiving adequate food and drink during Ramadan.
Motivated by complaints from prisoners and news reports of mistreatment of prisoners at the Wallens Ridge facility, Muslim Advocates first sent a public records request to the Virginia Department of Corrections on behalf of Ms. Gardner in 2020. The Department responded with no documents specific to Wallens Ridge, a high security prison, and only a small number of documents concerning high-level policies. The Department also announced that it was withholding important categories of records, including complaints by prisoners about religious mistreatment, claiming that they fall under an exemption to Virginia’s public records law designed to protect prisoners’ personal records. The lawsuit challenges both the Department’s failure to produce records and the Department’s invocation of this exemption.
“With Ramadan set to begin in just a few weeks, we must know how Muslims at Wallens Ridge are being treated,” said Gay Gardner, advocate at Interfaith Action for Human Rights. “We have received extremely disturbing reports that Muslims at the facility have been subject to violence, threats and bigotry from the staff at Wallens Ridge. It is simply outrageous that the state of Virginia is avoiding accountability by withholding these public records.”
“The reports of mistreatment of prisoners at Wallens Ridge are troubling, and the documents being sought in this lawsuit will be an important part of understanding their practices,” said Matt Callahan, senior staff attorney at Muslim Advocates. “Virginia’s state legislature has made clear through its robust public records laws that public oversight of the prison system is important. By refusing to produce these records, the Virginia Department of Corrections is fighting the purpose of the law and obstructing an important check against prison abuse.”
- Virginia Continues to Deny Muslim Inmates’ Right to Observe Ramadan
- Virginia Prisons Unlawfully Preventing Inmates from Observing Ramadan
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.