CHEYENNE - The Wyoming Department of Corrections says it will allow Muslim inmates at the state penitentiary in Rawlins to time their meals to accommodate their daily prayers.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of two Muslim inmates. The lawsuit challenged a prison rule requiring inmates to eat their meals within 20 minutes after delivery, saying the policy forced them to choose between eating meals and praying.
U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer approved an agreement on Wednesday that allows prisoners receiving religious meals to keep their meals in their cells until the next meal is served. It also requires the prison to install a new microwave for inmates that won't be used for pork, which is forbidden to Muslims and members of some other religions.
Stephen Pevar, a lawyer with the ACLU in Connecticut, said Thursday that he credits prison officials for their willingness to make changes to accommodate the inmates.
Congress passed a law in 2000 that was intended to make certain that prisoners could practice their religions in prison unless doing so clearly threatened prison security, Pevar said.
"Complying with this new law has required prison officials around the country to make some changes," Pevar said. "I am pleased to say that Wyoming officials have made some very important changes, not only in this case, but in that case a couple of months ago with the American Indian inmate who wanted access to some eagle feathers."
The ACLU represented inmate Andrew John Yellowbear Jr., a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, in his successful federal lawsuit against the Wyoming Department of Corrections to secure eagle feathers for use in religious ceremonies. Yellowbear is serving a life sentence on a conviction of murder in the death of his daughter.
In the current lawsuit, the ACLU represented Muslim inmates Joseph Miller and Hurie Purdiman Jr. against the corrections department. Pevar said other inmates, including both Muslims and Jews, will take advantage of the prison's agreement to install a new microwave oven that won't be used for pork.
"It's a quick fix to a problem that caused a number of Muslim prisoners to not be able to eat," Pevar said.
On the issue of timing meals to allow Muslim inmates to perform their prayers, the agreement calls for prison staff to alert inmates before meals are served in the dining hall and also to allow inmates receiving religious meals to go to the front of the serving line to get their meals. It also establishes a procedure for inmates who must fast until after sundown to get their meals when their fasts are over.
Melinda Brazzale, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said Thursday that Rawlins Warden Mike Murphy had sent out a directive to the prison staff instructing them how to comply with the agreement.