A U.S. judge in Alexandria has ruled that Muslim prisoners at the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond have been denied the right to practice their religion and ordered officials to devise a plan for a prison Islamic worship center to hold at least 300 inmates.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. is the first of its kind in Virginia, according to a prison spokesman. Prison officials had claimed that there were only 49 active Muslims in the facility and argued that they could use the prison chapel, which accomodates Christian worshippers.
But prisoner Latif Rashed, who won the case without a lawyer, said 300 of the prison's 915 inmates were registered as Muslims and that the chapel's pews obstructed them during bowing and prostration on rugs during worship. Rashed also said in court papers that his religion prohibits human and physical images such as crucifixes in worship facilities.
Bryan told prison officials to devise a plan within 30 days but first submit it to Rashed for his approval. Rashed must then give Bryan his assessment "of whether this plan will adequately serve his and the other Muslims' needs for the practice of the Islamic faith," Bryan ruled.
Based on the evidence, Rashed "has not been afforded a reasonable opportunity to practice his religion because the facilities presently available. . . are inadequate for Muslim worship," Bryan said.
The state's plan for the Islamic center should specifically designate a place other than the present chapel "if it cannot be made serviceable for Muslims . . . " with unobstruction floor space for the placement of prayer rugs, Bryan said.
Quoting a ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Bryan said a prisoner "does not shed his First Amendment rights at the prison portals . . . " A restirction of those rights is only made "upon a convincing showing that paramount state interests so require."
A prison spokesman said the state will comply with Bryan's order.