Islam Incarcerated: Religious Accommodation of Muslim Prisoners Before Holt v. Hobbs
46 Pages Posted: 8 Feb 2015 Last revised: 11 May 2015
Date Written: February 7, 2015
On January 20, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy restricting a Muslim inmate from growing a half-inch beard violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The majority decision in Holt v. Hobbs, delivered by Justice Alito, held that the prison’s restriction substantially burdened Abdul Maalik Muhammad’s right to practice his faith – Islam. For Muslim men like Abdul Maalik Muhammad, donning a beard demonstrates piety, and emulation of Islam’s final and foremost messenger, Mohammed.
Holt came before the Supreme Court during a moment of rising scholarly interest in the Muslim prison population. The War on Terror has converted American prisons into battlegrounds, pitting prison officials against “radical Islam.” In addition to fear of prisoner radicalization, the Nation of Islam (NOI), an African-American Muslim movement conceived in Detroit in 1930, is still strongly represented in American prisons. Scholars have not only paid little attention to the experience of NOI Muslim inmates, but also, segregated this narrative from the modern legal discourse about Muslim inmates have in the War on Terror era. The decision in Holt provides the ideal juncture to integrate the modern experience of Muslim prisoners with the pioneering strides brought forth by NOI Muslim inmates.
This Article highlights the legal challenges and strategies used by incarcerated followers of the NOI and the victories earned: first, gaining judicial recognition of Islam as a religion prison authorities must accommodate; second, establishing that prisoners had standing to sue in federal court under the Civil Rights Act of 1871; and third, netting a range of fundamental religious accommodations that were not peculiar to the NOI, but amenable to Muslims across sectarian lines. Through an analysis of this litigation, this Article also examines the judicial construction of the NOI’s legal identity, impacted heavily by popular representations and misrepresentations of the movement that spiked in the late 1950’s – decades before the recent Holt decision.
Keywords: First Amendment, Free Exercise, Prisoners Rights, Islam, National Security, Religion, Constitutional Law, Critical Race Theory, Legal History, Supreme Court
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