Muslim inmates in Maryland prisons are trying to take state officials to court claiming they are denied the same considerations and opportunities to pratice their religion behind bars that Christian inmates have.
Under pressure of a flurry of prisoner-initiated court suits filed over the last two years. State Corrections Commissioner Mark A. Levine is currently negotiating with the prisoners' court-appointed attorney for an out-of-court solution to the issues raised by the suits.
"We want to work with the various religious groups to hlep them meet the requirement of their religion."
Levine said last week.
Muslim and prison officials alike afree that there are between 100 and 150 Muslim prisoners at each of the two major correctionsl insitutions in the state, the House of Correction in jessup and the state penitentiary in Baltimore.
Neither Barbara S. Brewer, attorney for the prisoners, nor assistant Attorney Geleral Stephen B. Caplis, acting as counsel for the Department of Corrections, would discuss details of the proposal to resolve the suits, which list a wide range of complaints
It was understood, however, that the basic demands of the Muslim inmates were for a state-funded "spiritual coordinator," appropriate places set apart permanently for prayers, Muslim religious materials supplied on the same bais as Christian materials supplied on the same basis as Christian materials, and a guaranteed non-pork diet - all subject to the enforcement powers of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The suits contend that while the state employs both Protestant and Catholic chaplains for prisoners. Muslim inmates must rely on imams (spiritual leaders) from a Baltimore mosque who "at personal hardships and expenses, commute to and from" the prisons on a volunteer basis.
One suit alos contends that Muslim inmates are obliged to pray "in unclean and nonpiously presentable work areas." The Muslims said they want an appropriate place for salats, their obligatory, five-times-a-day prayers.
The Muslim inmates also said they are denied access to the prisoners' welfare fund, which they would like to tap to purchases worship and educational materials. They claim such funds are available to Christians.
Levine, in commenting on the Muslims demands, said, "I feel as if we've been responsive to their needs."
He cited, for example, the case of Ramadan, a month-long observance during which Muslims are obliged to fast during daylight hours. "We adjusted our schdule so that they could eat enough in the day and late in the evening" to meet the religious requirements, he said.
Levine said the prison system is also working to accomdate the Moslem ban against eating pork. "We recognize their needs," he said. "We're working toward giving them a subsitute when a major pork item is on the menu."
Levine said it has "been a principle in the agency to fund Prostant and Catholic clergy" as prison chaplains. Other denominations work on a volunteer basis." he said.
The Rev. O. Tillman, Prostetant chaplain and coordinator of religious activities at the state penitentiary, said he would welcome a Muslim spiritual leader - "It certainly would lighten my load up" - but was sceptical about the prospects of the legialature appropriating the necessary funds.
Tilman said he has no budget for religious materials for Christian inmates. "All the Christian religious materials are donated" by organizations on the outside , he said.%TTillman commented that it would be "hard to make available" a separate room for the five-times-a-day prayers of the Muslims because of the over-crowding at the instution.
Tillman identified three Muslims sects at the penitentiary: the Sunni or orthodox Muslims; the Moorish Science Temple of America, and the adherents of the World Community if Islam, formerly called Black Muslims. The last group is by far the largest.
The District of Columbia's Lorton reformatory hired a full-time Muslim spiritual leader last December. Muslim imams are also employed in the chaplain programs of penal systems in New York, New Jersey, Texas,Michigan and Connecticut.