Muslims in Arkansas prison sue over services

Shared worship is the complaint

Three state prisoners filed suit Friday against the Arkansas Department of Correction, alleging that their civil and religious rights are being violated through prison policies forcing the Muslim men to worship with other groups, namely the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths.

The suit is supported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization for Muslims. One of the plaintiffs is Gregory Houston Holt, whose 2014 challenge of the prison system's no-beard policy went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was ruled unconstitutional.

Two other prisoners housed along with Holt at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit in Jefferson County also are plaintiffs to the suit. They are Rodney Martin and Wayde Stewart.

According to their complaint filed in the federal court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Martin and Stewart object to being forced to attend Friday prayer services, known as Jumu'ah, along with the other groups, or risk losing their other religious accommodations, such as a different meal program during Ramadan.

Holt stopped going to the prison's Friday services altogether out of protest, the suit alleges, resulting in his other Islamic accommodations being taken away.

The Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths -- also known as the Five Percenters, which splintered off from the Nation of Islam during the 1960s -- essentially operate as completely different faiths, the lawsuit claims. The suit estimates that those two groups have combined membership of around 150,000 people in the U.S., and that they each teach "that the black man is God."

Islam, meanwhile, is widely considered the world's second-largest religion, with more than 1.8 billion followers.

"At a minimum, we're saying that the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths should be separated the same way seven different Christian denominations are separated right now," said Carolyn Homer, an attorney for the council's Legal Defense Fund.

Homer provided copies of prison calenders showing regular prayer services for Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists. A copy of the lawsuit filed by the council also claims the department offers Pentecostal, Protestant and general Christian services.

A state prisons spokesman, Solomon Graves, declined to comment Friday, referring all questions about the lawsuit to the attorney general's office.

Amanda Priest, a spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said the attorney general has not been asked to represent the prison system, nor had she seen the suit.

Homer said a paper copy of the lawsuit was filed Friday morning with the court. However, the suit had not been logged on the court's website by Friday evening. The council provided a copy of the lawsuit in a news release.

Holt, who also goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is serving a life sentence for domestic battery and aggravated burglary. He has initiated more than a half-dozen suits against various government entities since his imprisonment, including the suit that led to a change in the prison system's beard policy.

Holt's trial in 2010 was marked by references to past prison sentences and convictions for threats to former President George W. Bush's daughters and for letters he had written describing himself as part of the "American Taliban."

Homer said the council became involved in representing Holt through Douglas Laycock, a Texas attorney and law professor who represented the inmate in his previous case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The other two men, Stewart and Martin, are eligible for parole within the next 10 years.

Stewart's profile on the prison website indicates he was convicted of murder in 1974, given a 118-year sentence, paroled but was sent back to prison in 2008 and 2014. Martin is serving time for a host of charges, including theft, drug possession, robbery and kidnapping.

It's unclear how many Muslims are housed in the state's prisons, which overall have about 16,000 inmates in the Correction Department's direct care. Chaplains oversaw 35 Islamic services in January, according to prison system numbers.

Metro on 03/02/2019