Murphy Hokey Law

February 23, 2024

Muslim prayer services are suspended for weeks in Connecticut CT prison. “You are unable to atone for the prayers you did not say”

Muslim prayer services are suspended for weeks in Connecticut CT prison.

Scott Sheppard’s life was drastically altered when he converted to Islam about six months ago. He claimed that for the first time in his life, he felt at ease and had a feeling of acceptance. His newfound faith also contributed in his rehabilitation as he neared the end of a 15-year term at York Correctional Institution for first-degree assault.

Being among other people who share my beliefs is made possible by my place of worship. We discuss topics that are incomprehensible to others,” Sheppard remarked. “Our worship services give us security, safety, and healing.”

However, Sheppard claimed to have received notice in the middle of November that the imam who oversaw Wednesday’s Taleem sessions would no longer be working for the Niantic jail. Friday Jum’ah services have also previously ceased. Muslims were left on their own in Connecticut’s lone women’s prison.

Sheppard, a transgender man, and other inmates at the facility have been in serious distress due to the absence of congregational services, which has persisted for weeks.

“This is really upsetting me,” Sheppard exclaimed. “My life is Islam,” he continued.

Congregational prayer is more spiritually and socially significant to Muslims than individual prayer. People have severe doubts regarding the legitimacy and constitutionality of the prison’s decision to cease services, nevertheless, because the DOC forbids congregations without an approved chaplain or a volunteer religious leader who follows the same faith.

“Belief in the religion does not only mean that prison officials forbid them from praying,” civil rights lawyer Maryam Bitar of Hartford stated. “The restriction also means that it is a restriction and a violation of the Constitution if they do not provide a pure or proper place for the prayers.”

Muslim prayer services are suspended for weeks in Connecticut CT prison.

Sheppard saw significance in the timing, since services were suspended during a growing conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East. More than 17,000 people have died as a result of the conflict, the vast majority of whom were Palestinians, and there has been a noticeable rise in Islamophobia. The majority of Palestinians are Muslims—nearly 98%.

Ashley McCarthy, the director of external affairs for the DOC, stated on Wednesday that there was a personnel deficit, not a result of the war or work schedule reductions, that caused the disruption.

McCarthy added that one of the two imams, Larry Baha, had just departed the organization and that the other, Sami Shamma, had been temporarily working extra hours at York on Wednesdays. She stated that a full-time imam would begin work on December 14 and that the facility intends to restart operations on Friday.

However, York has not offered Muslims congregational prayer for almost a month. McCarthy stated that there aren’t as many staffing shortages for other religious services, and there haven’t been any reports of disruptions with other groups.

It’s also unclear why the jail terminated Shamma’s overtime privileges at York until it could secure a permanent imam. Shamma is a full-time chaplain at MacDougall-Walker Correctional in Suffield.

When contacted by phone, Shamma chose not to respond. The recently-resigned imam Baha did not answer calls seeking comment. However, a number of publications said that York’s hourly cuts were the cause of the stoppage.

Sheppard claimed in correspondence with the reporters that staff members informed him that having an imam there was not a top priority due to York’s designation as a women’s facility.

“DOC puts on the act to cover their behinds now that I’m speaking up, emails are coming in, and I’m filing grievances,” Sheppard stated.

They give the impression that they care, but I don’t think so. If so, why did you reduce the number of overtime hours from the last service we had, making it impossible for the Imam to arrive?

The DOC is not allowed to impose any restrictions on religious expression unless it can show that its actions are “to further a compelling governmental interest and are the least restrictive ways of doing so,” as stipulated by the federal and state constitutions of both the United States and Connecticut.

Numerous behaviours, such as participating in prayer groups, reading books, and attending religious services, have been declared by courts to be “religious exercise.”

In 2016, Connecticut consented to resolve a federal lawsuit concerning the religious practices of three inmates. One lawsuit was Kevin Harris, who claimed that his reading materials were seized by prison officials on the grounds that they were contraband and asked the DOC to recognise the Five-Percent Nation. His civil complaint stated that he was essentially “barred from practicing his religion in any way.”

McCarthy stated that the DOC has made the employment of a full-time imam for the York prison a priority and that the department is aware of its legal responsibilities both under federal and state law.

McCarthy remarked, “If anything, this is monumental for York, because they have an imam assigned to their facility for the first time ever.” The imam will also work at Corrigan Correctional. Instead of depending solely on outside volunteers, they have someone who is committed to them. Thus, that is a far more long-term strategy to guarantee that everything runs more smoothly.

However, Bitar notes that the DOC was probably mandated by law to offer a substitute way for prisoners to practise the faith while it looked for a new imam.

“It doesn’t matter that it was for a short or temporary time if you discriminated against me and prevented me from exercising my rights,” Bitar said. He also mentioned that if there was no good reason for the services to be interrupted, a York prisoner may still be able to file a lawsuit against the state.

Bitar, a Muslim, observed that adherents of the faith offer five daily prayers. Muslims mostly rely on their communication with God, so skipping any prayers could bring serious mental and emotional suffering.

Bitar remarked, “You can’t make up for the prayers you missed.”

Belief in religion has been shown to improve the personal wellbeing of those behind bars. Sheppard thinks his own experience confirms that.

The 36-year-old has been behind bars for about 13 years, most of which he served in solitary confinement as a result of his propensity to “get in a lot of trouble.” He claimed that after starting his gender transition in 2018, things improved.

He currently works two days a week as a truck driver at the commissary warehouse, attends night classes to obtain his associate’s degree, and more recently, he began going to Muslim worship with assiduity.

Sheppard remarked, “We have solidarity knowing we have a safe space for us Muslims to gather together.”

He claimed that on Wednesday, the jail informed a group of about a dozen Muslims that it now has a permanent imam as a result of his efforts to bring attention to the recent spate of incidents.

Sheppard remarked, “It is unfortunate that the facility had no intention of finding an Imam for us if I had not spoken up about this issue.”

“I’m glad I was able to assist not just myself but also the other Muslims at York.”

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