Mich. prisoners will have more religious freedoms after MDOC reaches agreement with feds

When the new requirements cannot be accommodated, such as during a security risk, written documentation must be provided explaining why


By Alyssa Burr
mlive.com
        
LANSING, Mich. — Almost two years later, a federal investigation into the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) reached an agreement regarding the religious practices of prisoners on Thursday, Nov. 4.

The U.S. Department of Justice investigation and agreement addressed MDOC’s policy of a five-person minimum for group worship and religious activities; its policy of prohibiting group religious practice for certain religious groups— Hindu, Yoruba, Hebrew Israelite and Thelema practitioners; and its restrictions limiting access to kosher meals for the Passover holiday for those not on the kosher diet year-round.

Based on the agreement reached Thursday, these policies and procedures will be changed.

Fencing outside the Michigan Department of Corrections' Muskegon Correctional Facility and the Ernest C. Brooks Correctional Facility (or E.C. Brooks) in Muskegon on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.
Fencing outside the Michigan Department of Corrections' Muskegon Correctional Facility and the Ernest C. Brooks Correctional Facility (or E.C. Brooks) in Muskegon on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. (Cory Morse/MLive.com)

The new policies and practices will remove the five-person minimum for religious services and activities, remove the prohibition on group religious practice for Hindu, Yoruba, Hebrew Israelite and Thelema practitioners and remove the requirement that prisoners must be on the kosher diet year-round to receive the kosher-for-Passover meal.

If the MDOC cannot accommodate these new requirements in certain situations, such as when there is a security risk, written documentation must be provided explaining why.

“Federal law guarantees the right to freely exercise your religion to all Americans,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Saima Shafiq Mohsin for the Eastern District of Michigan. in a statement. “We are pleased that this agreement makes it easier for prisoners in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections to exercise this fundamental right.”

U.S. Attorney Andrew Byerly Birge for the Western District of Michigan echoed Mohsin’s statement, saying his office is “grateful for the MDOC’s willingness to work with us and implement new policies to ensure better protection for these rights.”

On December 10, 2019, the United States began an investigation into the MDOC pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). According to the U.S. Department of Justice website, RLUIPA “protects individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.”

In addition to these changes, the MDOC will also provide training to staff and chaplains involved in implementing the revised policy.

This agreement will terminate when the MDOC has achieved substantial compliance and has maintained substantial compliance for two years. It’s anticipated that it will take the MDOC six months to achieve substantial compliance within the terms of the agreement.

Another recent federal court ruling ensures Michigan prisoners who practice Judaism will receive holiday cheesecake behind bars.

A 2013 lawsuit filed by prisoners Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin on behalf of all Jewish inmates claimed the Michigan Department of Corrections deprived them of their right to practice their religion by not supplying kosher meat and dairy during certain holidays.

“Kosher” is a term that signifies food is compliant with Jewish rules interpreted from the Torah by rabbis. In modern times, that means, among many other guidelines, that meat comes from split-hooved mammals that chew cud or fish that have removable scales, and that the source animals were slaughtered in accordance with certain rituals.

After U.S. District Judge Linda Parker’s 2019 ruling siding with the prisoners and a nearly two year long appeal process by the MDOC, they were finally able to reach the current ruling.

The MDOC has taken measures to comply with the dietary needs of various religions. For example, during the month of Ramadan, when fasting Muslims can’t eat or drink during daylight hours, prisoners are provided special pre-dawn and dusk “fasting bags,” said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

Often, when a group of people is granted religious accommodations, such as cheesecake for the Jewish prisoners or pre-dawn lunch bags for Muslims, others will claim a religion to partake in the mealtime perks, according to Gautz.

The U.S. Department of Justice will have access to documents and correctional facilities to assess compliance with the Nov. 4 agreement.

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