Prison treatment of Muslim woman called into question

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — The Council on American Islamic Relations in Michigan filed two civil rights complaints Wednesday against the Michigan Department of Corrections regarding allegations that a pregnant woman’s rights are being violated at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

The complaints concern Siawtu-Salama Ra, 26, of Detroit. The group alleges she has been denied her right to prayer and practice of her faith — including being refused a Quran with which to pray, a hijab, a prayer rug, prayer beads and food that doesn’t contain or has been cooked with pork products.

In a separate, related complaint filed Wednesday with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Marna Muhammad, a religious and spiritual leader with Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit — the oldest mosque in Michigan — claims she has repeatedly been denied clergy visits with Ra, who has been incarcerated since March 5 on a firearms offense.

“This is a travesty,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR-Michigan during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “It is troublesome we were forced to file complaints about denying appropriate food accommodations for an eight-month pregnant woman. It is equally troubling that MDOC called into question the religious legitimacy of the oldest mosques in America, an institution at which I previously served as an imam.”

The Muhammad complaint lists examples of alleged religious discrimination and says the Huron Valley facility “often gives out Bibles to individuals as they are processed for incarceration,” including to Ra, without their request. She is serving a two-year sentence.

Volunteers of outreach programs run by Christian organizations are regularly allowed unannounced visits to inmates and permitted to distribute Christian reading materials, such as the Bible and Daily Bread magazine, but Muslim volunteers are often turned away and stopped from bringing in Muslim reading material.

Walid said the practices violate the MDOC’s own “rules, guidelines, and policies” concerning accommodating the religious needs of inmates.

Victoria Burton-Harris, Ra’s defense attorney in her criminal matter, said the firearms conviction involved a situation where another woman threatened Ra’s family with her car, and in “self-defense,” Ra went to her own vehicle to obtain a firearm that she brandished, causing the woman to flee and report the matter to police.

No one was injured, and no shots were fired in the incident.

Burton-Harris said in a recent visit, she found her client “had lost a lot of weight” because of her fear of consuming pork or pork-related products that violate her religion.

“There could be complications in pregnancy due to her diet and loss of caloric intake,” Burton-Harris said.

She said other visitors are buying Ra snacks from vending machines, such as “candy bars, potato chips and cheese pizza — items free of pork but not in her best interests.”

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesman, said the state has not been served with the civil rights complaints, but from what he had heard, he believes CAIR misrepresented Ra’s situation.

“They have said she was in some kind of segregation from other inmates, which is not true. She was never denied a hijab and didn’t come in with one or ask for one,” Gautz said. “When CAIR made the accusations that she had been denied it, we immediately provided her with a form to request one, and it is en route, and she should be getting it next week.”

Gautz said a prison chaplain met with Ra and asked if there was anything she required to meet her religious needs.

“She said no,” said Gautz. “And she didn’t request the standard vegan meal, which has been certified for Muslim and Jewish prisoners.”

Regarding Muhammad’s claims, Gautz said “she came in unannounced with a piece of paper — no letterhead — it could have come from anywhere and was denied a visit with her (Ra). Not because we couldn’t confirm the veracity of her claims or the validity of her mosque, but that’s not the way we do things here.

“These are highly secure facilities, and people aren’t allowed in for special visits just because they produce a piece of blank paper,” he said. “Normally, they produce a clergy card or are involved with a training school or outreach group we can contact.”

Gautz said 2,200 prisoners — 39 of them women — are designated as Muslim in Michigan’s state correctional facilities.

Amy Doukoure, a CAIR staff attorney, described the religious discrimination as “systemic” to the MDOC and said CAIR would closely monitor Ra’s situation and others involving Muslim inmates in Michigan prisons, especially with the coming of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday fast, next month.

“This should put the MDOC on notice,” Doukoure said of Wednesday’s complaints.

Last year, CAIR settled a lawsuit against the MDOC on behalf of inmates claiming they were denied adequate nutrition during the annual month-long fast in 2011 and 2012.


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