LOS ANGELES – Proposed regulations by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that deny American indigenous inmates access to numerous religious items need to be rejected, the ACLU of California said in a comment letter sent late yesterday. The regulations violate federal law and interfere with inmates’ religious practice, increasing the risk of negative behavior and the rate of recidivism.

“It is perplexing why the state would advocate for these untenable, unlawful restrictions,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “We certainly understand a prison’s desire to maintain security, but allowing inmates to engage in religious exercises does not pose a security threat; in fact, studies show that it reduces violence.” The proposed list of allowable inmate religious property omits items that are often fundamental for American indigenous religious practice, including the kinnikinnick, sacred pipe, buffalo or deer skull, antlers, drums, leather, and dipper and bucket.  The indigenous items are allowed by many other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Under federal law—The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—the state cannot prevent an inmate’s religious expression without a compelling government interest, and restrictions must be as minimal as possible. In fact, courts have ruled that institutions must provide confined persons even greater protection of religious exercise than what the Constitution affords, making these proposed regulations all the more indefensible.

“In addition to our problem with the Correction Department’s overblown fears about security, we believe the stated reasons they give for rewriting the current regulations are disingenuous,” said David Loy. “Instead of minimizing discrepancies, confusion, and potential inmate litigation, these new regulations would likely have the opposite effect.”

Other reasons for the restrictions articulated in the proposals were to minimize discrepancies, confusion, and potential inmate litigation, but the ACLU believes the opposite would result if the proposals were implemented.

The ACLU letter encourages the CDCR to respect RLUIPA’s heightened protection for the religious exercise of institutionalized people, and calls on the department to revise the proposed regulations to avoid the serious burdens they present.

Contact: Diana Rubio or Vicki Fox 213.977.5252 ACLU/SC; Jess Jollett  619.203.0959 ACLU of San Diego