A Muslim inmate is petitioning the court to provide him with a “halal” diet. His contention is that the Arkansas Department of Correction is violating his right to religious freedom by refusing to do as his Muslim religion dictates.
On Monday, a federal judge began hearing testimony in the matter.
According to Arkansas Online (AO):
In Abdulhakim Muhammad’s view, meats from herbivorous animals that are slaughtered in accordance with a specific ritual are halal. Muhammad, a Sunni Muslim formerly known as Curtis Bledsoe, says “halal” means permitted and “haram” means prohibited. He believes haram food includes pork, meat from carnivorous animals, meat from other animals not properly slaughtered, and any food carrying haram ingredients such as gelatin, alcohol, pepsin, monoglycerides and diglycerides, and other animal byproducts.
According to the AO, the dietitian-developed meals in the state prison system include a rotation of various meats as a daily protein source. Fish isn’t an everyday choice, and the other meats on the menu aren’t “halal certified.”
Muhammad’s attorney, Jess Askew of Little Rock, said the inmate “sincerely believes” he must consume only a halal diet in observance of his Muslim faith. Askew said that requires the daily eating of halal meats which could include fish but would not include pork. Apparently, kosher meats, which must also meet specific religious requirements, would be an acceptable substitute.
During testimony by Kay Skillen, the Correction Department’s food services administrator of 20 years, the court learned that the food being served in the rotation follows Administrative Directive 13-98. The directive, published Nov. 22, 2013, allows for different meal options in the case of medically or religiously-qualified inmates. They include:
- vegetarian meals
- high-calorie, high-protein meals
- low-carbohydrate meals
- cardiovascular meals
- low-sodium meals
Skillen said there are no special foods purchased to make those meals, as the department’s kitchens specially prepare the ingredients supplied by low-cost vendors. Alternative meals are provided for inmates who can’t eat pork. Meals for inmates who don’t eat meat for religious reasons are prepared in separate kitchens, to avoid contamination by other foods. Though they may not be kosher-certified, she believes they are generally accepted as kosher.
Muhammad has complained that the department serves kosher food for inmates whose religions require it, but won’t accommodate him in the same way.
According to the AO:
From about 2002 until 2008, when an inmate whose litigation prompted the regular serving of kosher meals was transferred to another state, the department supplied two prepackaged kosher meals a day to inmates who requested a kosher diet, at cost of $5.45 per meal, Skillen said. The meals were called “My Own Meals” and were purchased to comply with a court order. Skillen testified that an attempt to reduce that cost led to the development of common-fare meals, which require separate kitchens and separate sets of pots and pans.
With 1,700 Muslim inmates in the prison system, the department offers special accommodations for Muslim inmates, such as making a Friday prayer service available, allowing them to participate in Ramadan and providing a full-time Muslim chaplain.
Joshua Mayfield, an administrator of chaplaincy services, says virtually all Muslim inmates are on a pork-free diet, and while pork-free diets don’t satisfy every definition of halal, for many Muslims, it is acceptable. He admits special requests are burdensome in the prison system, citing a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which allowed prisoners with certain religious requirements to have long hair or beards, which took chaplains hours to assess.
Department director Wendy Kelley testified Monday that the common fare diet was implemented because “the variety of religious diets that were coming through were becoming unmanageable.” She noted that forms to request certain diets, don’t allow inmates to list specific foods they want. They can only list foods they can’t eat.
“This prevents them from demanding expensive foods such as lobster,” Kelly said.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker is expected to complete a non-jury trial stemming from Muhammad’s lawsuit today.
In prison since 2012 for the 2009 drive-by shooting of two soldiers that resulted in one fatally, Muhammad pleaded guilty to capital murder, attempted capital murder and 10 counts of unlawful discharge of a firearm from a vehicle. He is serving life without parole for the crimes, which occurred outside a military recruiting station in Little Rock.
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