Officials at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s North Kern State Prison (NKSP) will no longer limit the access of Muslim inmates to pray, wear specific articles of religious clothing or prohibit them from obtaining prayer oils.  An official with the attorney general’s office announced the change in policy yesterday in a letter to the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU/SC).
The move was in direct response to a letter earlier this month from the ACLU/SC challenging policies at NKSP that unfairly singled out Muslim inmates.  Muslims were allowed to wear the kufi skull cap in their cells or in chapel, even though other inmates were allowed to wear baseball caps in other areas of the prison without restrictions.  Observant Muslims are required to pray five times a day, but inmates were told they could not pray in the recreation yard and were only allowed to pray in the chapel on the infrequent occasions that an imam was available. Inmates who had ordered prayer oil from an approved vendor later discovered that the oil had been confiscated and returned by the mailroom with no explanation to the inmates themselves.
“This is especially good news for Muslim inmates coming at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan,” said Jessica Price, attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “Federal and state law and multiple court rulings make it very clear that institutions cannot impose such burdens on the free exercise of religion, even behind prison walls.  Prisoners of other religions found no such roadblocks in their path to the chapel.  It’s clear these policies were directed specifically at Muslim inmates.”
Writing for the attorney general’s office in response to the ACLU/SC, the state official said that inmates at NKSP will be allowed to wear the kufi without restriction in all common areas of the prison, “subject to search in a respectful manner.”  In addition, the official said that, taking into account issues of staffing and security, Muslim inmates will have access to the chapel whether or not an imam is available. She also said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is in the process of developing a “religious property matrix” which will specify that inmates are allowed to possess kufis, prayer beads, and a specified amount of prayer oil “subject to legitimate safety and security issues.”