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Muslim inmates sue Alaska corrections officials over policy

May 23, 2018

This photo shows the public entrance to the Anchorage Correctional Complex on Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Anchorage, Alaska. Muslim inmates are suing state corrections officials, claiming that officials at the jail are providing them with inadequate nourishment as they break their daily fasts during Ramadan. (AP Photo/Dan Joling)

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Muslim inmates are suing state corrections officials, arguing that they are not provided adequate nourishment as they break their daily fasts during Ramadan at an Alaska jail.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations Legal Defense Fund. It asks a federal judge to require the Anchorage Correctional Complex to provide the men with meals with sufficient calories.

It also seeks an unspecified amount in damages.

The lawsuit argues the existing policy is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment and has a chilling effect on the men’s rights to exercise their religion.

Ramadan is the Muslim holy month, marked by daily fasting from dawn to sunset. In Anchorage, for those who observe Ramadan, that can mean going about 18 hours without food. Sunrise in Anchorage is shortly before 5 a.m. and sunset is about 11 p.m.

Those observing Ramadan receive bagged meals each evening that range from about 500 and 1,100 calories a day, the lawsuit says.

The men should be receiving 2,600 to 2,800 calories per day under federal health guidelines, said Lena Masri, national litigation director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Additionally, the bags sometimes contain food made of pork, which she said they cannot eat because of their faith. “So you’re talking about even less calories in those situations,” she said.

The lawsuit says the under the policy of the state corrections department, correctional facility superintendents are required to develop procedures to allow for the temporary accommodation of multi-day religious fasting and food prohibitions.

But it says the policy at the Anchorage Correctional Complex does not provide Muslim inmates observing Ramadan with a balanced diet.

Alaska corrections department spokeswoman Megan Edge said in a statement that the department cannot comment on specific litigation but can provide general information on efforts to accommodate inmates who want to observe religious practices.

She said the Anchorage jail provides two sack meals each night to inmates observing Ramadan. In total, each of those inmates receives four sandwiches and four pieces of fruit, vegetable sticks, two servings of milk and cookies or cake, she said.

Ramadan began on May 16 and will end on about June 15, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of inmates Anas Dowl and Ernest Jacobsson. It names as defendants state corrections Commissioner Dean Williams and the Superintendent of the Anchorage Correctional Complex, Zane Nighswonger, among others.

A separate emergency injunction also was filed. It says the inmates have unsuccessfully filed grievances over the policy and exhausted their ability to obtain emergency relief through the administrative process.

Last year, the Michigan Corrections Department and Muslim prisoners settled a similar lawsuit that was brought by the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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