Ever since 1996, when Congress passed a piece of legislation known as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), people in jail have had a harder time filing lawsuits in federal court to challenge conditions, denials of medical care, or harsh treatment. Some cases do get into court, though, and the judiciary plays a key role in allowing prisoners to seek justice and enforce their rights.
A federal appeals court in New York recently heard arguments in a case involving a group of Muslim inmates at the Westchester County Jail who alleged that prison officials refused to serve them the Halal meat required by their religious doctrine. In Perez v. Westchester County Dept. of Corrections, inmates alleged violations of their right to freedom of religion and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They also alleged that the jail violated their right to equal protection under the law by not providing treating them equally with Jewish inmates, who received Kosher meals.
The district court denied a motion by the Department of Corrections to dismiss the case, and ultimately the case settled. Under the settlement agreement, the jail modified its policies and agreed to provide Halal meat with the same frequency that it provides Kosher meat. This came on the heels of a similar ruling in Massachusetts that mandated that Muslim inmates could not be denied Halal meals on a daily basis. These cases represent a "significant departure from current case law with respect to Muslim inmates' equal protection rights to receive Halal meals containing Halal meat, as opposed to a vegetarian diet, which up until this case was arguably the constitutionally reasonable alternative meal plan."
Unfortunately, the Perez case didn’t quite come to an end with this progressive ruling. When the current and former Muslim inmates filed to have their attorney’s fees paid by the prison, as is standard practice for the winning party in these kinds of cases, the prison objected on a technicality that no one outside of the legal profession would enjoy hearing about. In short, the prison tried to avoid paying its due, or at very least to have their responsibility capped in accordance with another provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Both the district court and the Court of Appeals ruled that while the inmates were entitled to fees, the PLRA did effectively limit how much they could receive.
In the midst of all the injustices that Muslim Americans have been facing in the post-9/11 era, it is reassuring to see that the courts remain open, even a crack, to enforce laws designed to ensure respect for the cultural and religious traditions of all people. We should, however, remain wary of the subtle ways that people are discouraged from seeking justice, and act to remedy them.
(Photo by dogbomb.)