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Muslim Prisoners Are Suing Michigan for Starving Them During Ramadan

The Michigan Department of Corrections is learning that refusing to accommodate Muslims’ needs during Ramadan can escalate into a full-blown Constitutional violation.

by Tom Perkins
Nov 6 2015, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user neilconway

Lamont Heard describes his observation of Ramadan as a blessed experience—a peaceful and meditative month in which he seeks to become one with God while "staying in tune" with those who are less fortunate and hungry.

To accomplish that, he, like Muslims all over the world, fasts during the holy month's daylight hours.

That remains true for Heard even though he seeks communion with Allah from a Michigan prison, where he's serving life without parole for first-degree murder.

Religious fasting presents a slight issue behind bars, however. Life and the lunch line run on rigid schedules. And, as the Michigan Department of Corrections is learning, the slight issue can quickly escalate into a full-blown Constitutional violation if prisons refuse to accommodate Muslims' Ramadan needs.

Over a five-year period in Michigan, prisons presented Muslim inmates with two options during Ramadan—break their fast and eat, or stay true to their religion and starve.

Heard and three other prisoners opted for the latter, receiving less than half the calories prisons are required to feed inmates, but they also took the issue to federal court where, representing themselves, they won.

Heard, who is part of the Nation of Islam Prison Reform Ministry, tells MUNCHIES he's dismayed by what he suspects is the MDOC deliberately attempting to anger Muslim prisoners.

"We have young people trying to change, improve their lives, and religion is one of the tools to make change," he says. "We're stopping fights and saying, 'For 30 days, let's be spiritual. For 30 days, let's keep peace.'

"It's terrible when a person tries to do the right thing and you have a system that's trying knock you off that path. This is rehabilitation. If a person chooses rehabilitation but the state puts policies and obstacles in place to hinder that, it's heartbreaking."

Throughout a succession of hearings over the last two years, a US District Court judge repeatedly told the MDOC it couldn't toss the First and Eighth Amendments out the window by obstructing prisoners from observing Ramadan and starving them.

It turns out that the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act cover everyone, including prisoners like Heard who are Muslim but who have committed violent crimes.

Despite the judge's clear orders, the state tried weaseling out of its new kitchen duties. It twice defied the orders, twice lied about calorie counts to the court, and was twice held in contempt.

For their trouble, the judge awarded the prisoners $450 each in damages. But the inmates and their new attorney feel they're entitled to far more, and are filing a supplement to the lawsuit today that will seek $20,000 in damages for each plaintiff. That case will go before a jury.

The inmates should have received 352,000 calories during the five Ramadan months in question, but instead consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000, causing the prisoners to shed up to seven pounds weekly.

Given the MDOC's mishandling of the situation, there's a good chance the prisoners will extend their winning streak, says Dan Manville, an attorney at Michigan State University's Civil Rights Clinic who began representing the group earlier this summer.

He says he believes the MDOC's bungling stems from its former director Dan Heyns' incompetence.

The department changed its Ramadan policies following 2009 budget cuts and Heyns' subsequent appointment. Prior to those events, the state simply dropped an extra scoop of the slop du jour onto Muslims' Ramadan dinner trays.

It was that easy.

"It seems like an act of stupidity more than anything," Manville says. "I don't think there was anyone conspiring against them in the head echelon of DOC, but [DOC bosses] just didn't understand the reality of what happens in life. You're supposed to feed prisoners 2,350 calories a day, whether it's in two meals or three meals.

"It just doesn't make any other sense, and they probably thought they were going to save some money."

Per state law, inmates are to receive the 2,350 calories daily. In each Ramadan between 2009 through 2012, the plaintiffs were fed as little 1,000 calories per day. Following the judge's 2013 order, the MDOC upped the count to 1,900 on good days, according to court documents.

Add it up, and the inmates should have received 352,000 calories during the five Ramadan months in question, but instead consumed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000, causing the prisoners to shed up to seven pounds weekly.

I'm trying to use my relationship with God to obtain rehabilitation, [but some people might say,] 'He in there for murder. Who cares about food and calories?' If I'm hungry all the time, that's going to turn me into what I'm trying not to be anymore—a criminal who hurts someone else, hurts a guard.

That sort of treatment turns a peaceful religious journey into a distressing nightmare, and it's difficult to become one with God when one's stomach is screaming for more food. Moreover, prison isn't the best place to starve, and several Muslims simply gave up, Heard says.

But it's hard for some to find sympathy for those who commit violent crimes, and a good chunk of the population will look at the MDOC's stance and say "Good." For many of that group, the inmates' choice of religion is icing on the cake.

In response to that argument, Heard pointed to the concept of measuring a nation by how it treats the least of these. He added that prison is partly about rehabilitation, and not only does starving prisoners not accomplish that, it destabilizes a delicate environment.

"I'm trying to use my relationship with God to obtain rehabilitation, [but some people might say,] 'He in there for murder. Who cares about food and calories?' If I'm hungry all the time, that's going to turn me into what I'm trying not to be anymore—a criminal who hurts someone else, hurts a guard," he says. "If they don't want me to focus on rehab, instead I'm going to focus on destructive things."

The case started after the 2009 Ramadan, when a prisoner who studied nutrition in college gave Heard an old book from one of his classes. It listed the calorie counts for each meal the state rolled out of its kitchen.

After tallying the Ramadan menu's calories and sending grievances into the void, Heard and the plaintiffs sued. In July 2013, US District Judge Gordon Quist ordered an injunction requiring the MDOC to put 2,350 calories on the plaintiffs' trays during Ramadan. The MDOC agreed to do so.

But it didn't. And then it lied about it.

When Ramadan arrived in August 2013, the group again found themselves hungry. Heard consulted his book and easily determined that the prisons continued pinching calories.

So the group pulled the state back in front of Quist as Ramadan 2013 drew to a close. By presenting a comparison of the MDOC's calorie count to that in his book, Heard easily proved that the state inflated its numbers.

Thus, Quist found the state in contempt and ordered it to deposit $200 into each plaintiff's prisoner account.

"A lot of people in prison have an eighth grade education level, so [the MDOC] probably thought they were going to get away with it," Manville says. "How many people representing themselves would really have caught it? These guys are smart people."

The MDOC didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.

Prior to Ramadan in 2014, the plaintiffs asked Quist to extend the previous year's injunction. In his order doing so, Quist stated he was "concerned" about the state's attempt to deceive him the previous year. In an effort to prevent more MDOC lies, he required prison officials to submit weekly sworn statements confirming that plaintiffs weren't, for a fifth straight Ramadan, starving.

But that didn't work, and the state started skimping on calories again. This time, employees for the new company contracted to run the state's prison kitchens, Aramark, ignored the judge's order.

In response, the plaintiffs filed grievances with prison guards. That meant extra headaches for the guards, who already had their sights on Aramark employees for eliminating union jobs. (In July 2015, the state bounced Aramark over a range of disturbing health violations and food shortages.)

In a case of "The enemy of my enemy …", an unlikely alliance of Muslim prisoners and jail guards cooperated enough to nail Aramark employees for refusing to follow the judge's orders and lying about it to prison brass. But it also looked bad for the prisons. Without verifying that Muslims were receiving more food at night, administration sent affidavits to the court stating that Aramark fed prisoners 2,350 calories.

When the case went back in front of Quist, the plaintiffs again presented their menu comparisons along with dozens of grievances in which guards verified the shortages.

Once again, Quist found the state in contempt, this time awarding $250 in damages to each prisoner. In his order, Quist wrote that the Ramadan calorie shortage is a "problem that could have easily been addressed," and while prison bosses continued to swear that everyone's bowls remained full, a pile of evidence submitted by the plaintiffs "shows that this was not the case."

Heard says he was shocked to see the 2014 dispute play out with the assistance of the same guards who previously took part in starving them.

"It was a union fight. I couldn't believe the guards were riding with us," he laughed.

The Michigan case isn't the first on states underfeeding Muslims during Ramadan. In 2008, the Virginia Department of Corrections attempted a similar move that ended with similar results.

Heard says he was surprised the judge listened to the prisoners, but not surprised they eventually won.

"I feel like the law was on our side. I was really thinking what we're doing is right and it's a worthy fight because what they did to us is wrong," he says.