The Supreme Court Case You Missed…

While there has been no shortage of discussion surrounding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on such hot button issues ranging from marriage equality to health care, and the environment, one important court decision on the freedom of religion has failed to garner remotely enough support in the media. The U.S. Supreme Court case that was buried in the back pages of your local newspaper is Holt vs. Hobbs. While the case may sound more like a 1920’s boxing match, the decision has major implications for the freedom of religious expression, prisoner’s rights, and a victory against Islamophobia.

At the crux of the issue is an Arkansas inmate named Abdul Muhammad who has been denied the right to grow a beard in accordance to his Muslim faith. In a rare unanimous decision, the court ruled in the favor of Holt and Abdul Muhammed confirming that the state of Arkansas’s policy on beards did indeed violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The Court held that the state of Arkansas had demonstrated a significant burden on Mr.Muhammed’s religious practice since the correctional facility in Arkansas had forced him to violate his beliefs or suffer disciplinary action. The Court rejected Arkansas’s defenses, explaining that many other states allowed for beard-wearing accommodations. While the court’s decision is an obvious victory for freedom of religious expression, the case has a more subtle victory for prisoner’s rights. RLUIPA was created out of the dire need for prison reform when prisoners were subjected to random, unlawful, and arbitrary restraints involving their religious freedoms.

With the house of horrors that prisons have become, it is a breath of fresh air to see a victory for inmates. Despite the Guantanamo Bay scare tactics that many correctional facilities use regarding solitary confinement, well-documented evidence suggests solitary confinement serves little to no benefit and in fact creates long-term psychological damage. Compounding the problem are the dangerous conditions where prisoner safety and security are often compromised due to the high rate of violence, suicide, drug abuse/overdoses, sexual assault either by fellow inmates or correctional guards, and a health care system held together by duct tape and red tape which makes treatment all but impossible. One must question not just the state and federal government’s ability to maintain the daily upkeep of prisons and prisoners, but whether or not our legal justice/correctional facility system is faltered, failing, or inherently corrupt.

It should come as no big surprise that people of color, including Muslims of all colors, are far more likely to face jail time during the course of their lives than Caucasians. Often minor misdemeanor offenses and the price needed to make bail or pay fines keep minority inmates incarcerated for much longer sentences; thus creating a situation where people lose their jobs and sometimes their children to the state because they are locked up, unable to go to work, pay their bills, and take care of their families. This is a vicious cycle of minor crime and harsh punishment which disproportionately affect communities of color in our country.

Furthermore, states have turned the well-intended rehabilitation process into a for-profit money-making scheme. Prisoners’ rights, let alone their religious freedoms, are usually the last concern on state governors’ minds; many prison social welfare programs such as higher education, physical fitness, and substance abuse/mental health counseling are grossly underfunded despite many correctional facilities turning a profit. The privatization of prisons has created a lucrative lobby where jails compete for all sorts of manufacturing contracts and in return prisoners are pimped out to the highest bidder for slave labor. When manufactures talk about competitive salaries and “made in America products” one never thinks to consider our toasters, automobiles, and air-conditioners being built inside Alcatraz. Instead of thinking of prison as Orange is the New Black, one should just view black is the new black; many state prisons are in the “black” as they generate a nice, healthy surplus profit in the bank account every year.

Most recently, Riker’s Island has made its way into the headlines for less than rave reviews. Whether formally diagnosed, under-diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, many mentally ill patients end up in prison due to a lack of available space in mental health facilities. It has been estimated that nearly 40 percent of inmates at Riker’s Island suffer from mental illness. Additionally, over the last few years, it has been reported that correctional officers systematically abused the constitutional rights of inmates so repeatedly that sexual assault, child abuse, the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement, drug trafficking by officers, and violence between inmates were condoned and even encouraged among officers. Unfortunately, until recently, few offenses were ever addressed officially.

One begs to ask the question: is the free for all style of prison maintenance at Riker’s Island the exception or the rule in the way correctional facilities operate? More importantly, when will we as a nation rise up against the injustices that our criminal justice and correctional facility system continue to impose upon the poor, unhealthy, and people of color? With intense public outrage stemming from the recent high-profile police beatings and prison scandals, much within the system needs to improve. While prisoners’ religious freedoms are finally being addressed, I’m a lot less optimistic about the rest of their needs.


The photo is credited from the Tayba Foundation’s website

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One thought on “The Supreme Court Case You Missed…

  1. “With intense public outrage stemming from the recent high-profile police beatings and prison scandals, much within the system needs to improve. While prisoners’ religious freedoms are finally being addressed, I’m a lot less optimistic about the rest of their needs.” The connection between prisoners’ religious rights and prison conditions is spot-on. One of my biggest challenges this summer as a chaplain in a prison psych unit was accepting the limits of pastoral care: All of the spiritual practice and religious freedom in the world can’t compete with a system that is based on dehumanization — which our criminal justice system undoubtedly is, for all of the reasons you enumerate. As people of faith and conscience, we must not only minister to individuals in the system but also advocate for the dismantling of that system.

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