By Maryam Saleh
June 7, 2018
When an inmate at the Glades County Detention Center requests a Bible, the turnaround is about as rapid as one would expect, often with the chaplain’s personal involvement.
Ask for a copy of the Quran, and be prepared to wait.
Thanks to an ill-fated airplane flight that made international news when it failed to deport 92 Somalis, the detention center has no shortage of Muslim occupants. The difficulty of getting a Quran is just one of many indignities being meted out by the prison brass and guards during the month of Ramadan, a time of heightened spiritual reflection during which Muslims abstain from food and water between sunrise and sunset.
Even that, though, has become its own battle for devotees at the Glades facility, a Florida jail that doubles as an immigration detention facility. Most Muslims get to decide of their own volition whether or not they want to participate in the fast, an exercise in self control. But for those at Glades, there is an external barrier that can get in the way: an officer’s arbitrary decision whether or not to place them on the facility’s “Ramadan list,” according to a letter sent by lawyers from Muslim Advocates and Americans for Immigrant Justice to officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Glades County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.
In the seven-page letter, which is being reported for the first time by The Intercept, the lawyers charge that Glades staff has prevented Muslim detainees at the facility from the free exercise of their faith.
Employees from the sheriff’s office working at Glades have “unreasonably hindered individuals from observing the holy month of Ramadan by denying individuals access to the Ramadan list and by also providing inedible and insufficient quantities of food to those who fast,” reads the letter. Other practices at Glades, “including lack of access to halal meals and frequent cancellations of weekly congregational prayer services,” have also gotten in the way of the Muslim men’s religious observance. (Halal is the Arabic word for permissible, and when it comes to food, the concept refers to dietary standards that Muslims follow.)
“Accusations of misconduct involving agency employees and its contractors are taken seriously and will be investigated thoroughly,” ICE spokesperson Nestor Yglesias said in a statement. “Should these allegations be substantiated, appropriate action will be taken. ICE employees and contractors are held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct.”
Most of the complainants are part of a group of detainees that was brought to Glades in December, after a failed deportation flight to Somalia on which they said they were physically abused by ICE officers. (Four legal groups, including Americans for Immigrant Justice, sued ICE for “inhumane conditions” on the flight. ICE has denied the accusations, and litigation is ongoing.) The interference with religious practice is just the latest in a litany of abuses that the detainees say they’ve experienced at Glades. As The Intercept previously reported, they’ve complained of violent assaults by guards, denial of medical care, lack of access to their lawyers, and racism. Those accusations are the subject of an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. Some of the issues have yet to be resolved, said Lisa Lehner, an attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice who filed the administrative complaint. “There are still some real, serious medical issues that have not been taken care of, for people who really need medical care,” she said. “The lack of it at this point is really exacerbating some of their conditions.”
The grievances emanating from Glades are not an anomaly. Immigrants’ rights advocates have, for years, called for increased scrutiny of ICE detention centers, which operate with no independent oversight and have historically been riddled by allegations of abuse. An investigation by The Intercept earlier this year revealed a staggering pattern of sexual abuse in immigration detention, where the accused perpetrators were often ICE employees. The number of people detained by ICE has reached record highs under President Donald Trump. The average daily population during fiscal year 2017 was 38,106; that number climbed to 39,322 during the first two months of the current fiscal year.
Lehner said the complaints speak to small county jails’ failure to adequately meet the needs of large groups of immigrant detainees. “Lack of respect for the religious observance is part of the global issue of the inability of county jails, like Glades, to properly detain large populations of immigrant detainees. We see this problem manifested in the lack of adequate medical care; the inadequate access to counsel in the facility; and now, the failure to respect the religious observance of these men,” she said. “When you think about it, these are just basic human needs and constitutional rights.”
The most recent complaints from Glades are about much more than Ramadan or religious practice, said Yusuf Saei, a fellow at Muslim Advocates. Abusive conditions are just one more reason for detainees to give up on the uphill battle to fight their deportations. (A team of pro bono lawyers is helping the detainees who were returned on the December flight to file motions to reopen their immigration cases. A number of those requests have been granted so far, Lehner said.)
“The day-to-day horror of one’s conditions of confinement kind of de-incentivizes people to fight their cases,” Saei said. “I think it’s kind of part of the ICE strategy to make things as difficult as possible, so that people want to voluntarily leave and not keep appealing their cases.”
Glades has a Ramadan list, on which detainees must be placed if they wish to participate in the fast. According to the letter, which does not name any of the detainees, at least two men were denied placement on the list. One of them submitted a formal, written request to be placed on the list several days before the start of Ramadan. Major Keith Henson, an employee of the sheriff’s office who works at the jail, wrote “denied,” in response to the request, without offering any justification. Individuals detained at the facility said Henson claimed inclusion on the Ramadan list was limited to individuals who professed their religion as Islam during “in processing,” yet some detainees said they were not asked about their religion during processing.
Placement on the list matters because immigrant detainees’ daily habits are closely watched, Saei said. “Somebody who just tried to fast without receiving permission by being put on the list might be singled out for discipline or negative treatment by corrections officers,” he said. “Not eating during the day and not being on the Ramadan list could sort of single you out for that kind of discipline, and even potentially administrative segregation or isolation.”
“If you’re not on the list, essentially you can’t fast, unless you’re going to starve.”
Detainees on the list also should be able to get an extra bagged meal in place of the lunch they skip, which they need so that their post-fast meal is nutritionally satisfying, said Sirine Shebaya, a lawyer at Muslim Advocates. The fast lasts about 15 hours in Moore Haven, Florida, where the Glades County Detention Center is located — so every bite counts. “It’s likely that all of the meals might be served at times that you’re fasting, so if you’re not on the list, essentially you can’t fast, unless you’re going to starve,” Shebaya said.
Ramadan is, in many ways, a community affair: People tend to gather with friends and family for iftar, the meal eaten to break the fast, and spend their nights praying together at a mosque. Immigrant detainees, separated from their families, are not only denied that community experience, but at Glades, they’re also facing discriminatory treatment even if they’re included on the Ramadan list, the advocates charge. Several of the detainees have reported that their food is not halal and the portions are not sufficient after a long day of fasting. Those observing the fast are required to eat leftover meals, which means that, depending on when lunch is served, the meals have possibly been out in the open for more than eight hours by the time of iftar. Some detainees reported being served food that was hard to swallow, cold, or rotten. “It is likely that the trays have been exposed to variable temperatures and humidity in Glades County, Florida and potentially to other dirt and germs,” reads the letter.
The issue of Ramadan accommodations is most urgent because it is time-sensitive, Shebaya said. She emphasized, however, that there are a number of other violations of detainees’ right to freely exercise their religion that Glades needs to address.
“Detained persons are so reliant on the rules and regulations put in place by the people who have custody of them,” Shebaya said. “Religious practice is such a fundamental value that is really being undermined in this facility.”
One example detailed in the letter is the difficulty in performing congregational prayers. Muslims hold weekly congregational prayers on Friday, and attendance is generally required. While some of the detainees have been able to hold Friday prayer services, guards frequently cancel the prayers without notification, or they yell at the worshippers to hurry up and finish.
Muslims recite passages from the Quran in Arabic while praying, and for those who don’t speak Arabic, an English translation is key to understanding the text. One detainee requested a copy of the Quran in both English and Arabic. He waited more than a month for the English translation, and he was never provided with the Arabic original. The chaplain later told him he could have one or the other. Another detainee who requested a Quran was never given one.
“Requesting a Quran is not something that should take a month, and you should also not be questioned about the language in which you want that Quran,” Shebaya said.
Some detainees have also reported being singled out for abuse because they wear a kufi, a knit cap that some Muslim men wear as religious headgear. One man said that officers would snatch his kufi and toss it around, while another said he was threatened with being moved to segregation if he did not take his kufi off. A third man reported that another detainee was actually sent to segregation for wearing a kufi and was told that kufis are not allowed at the detention center.
The incidents at Glades are the most clearly documented, Shebaya said, but complaints of religious discrimination are happening throughout the system. One reason these excesses are happening might be that immigration detention centers like Glades are adjusting to a surge in Muslim, Arab, and South Asian populations, she noted, but it could also be animus toward Muslims, or a combination of both.
The detainees have relayed that their Christian counterparts at Glades appear to be receiving preferential treatment, the lawyers wrote in the letter. “At this facility, Glades County, it seems like the chaplain is pretty accommodating for Christian detainees,” Saei told The Intercept. “We’ve heard that he’s more personally involved in providing the Bible as soon as it’s requested.”
The detainees’ right to religious observance is enshrined in detention standards promulgated by ICE, as well as federal and state law.Glades operates under the 2000 National Detention Standards, which contain guidance on everything from use of force by guards, to detainee grievance procedures, to religious accommodations. Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, Glades staff is prohibited from substantially burdening religious exercise, unless they can prove there is a compelling government interest for doing so. (The Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Act offers similar protections.)
The NDS require that Muslims participating in the Ramadan fast be given their approved meals after sundown.
Legal advocates charge that Glades has violated these protections in a number of ways. For example, the NDS say that a detainee can profess faith or change faith “at any time,” yet Henson was reportedly referring to the religion professed by individuals during processing. When it comes to meals, the NDS require that Muslims participating in the Ramadan fast be given their approved meals after sundown. The general food policy is that detainees should be served two hot meals daily, and that when it comes to halal or kosher meals, hot entrees should be provided three times a week. In the letter, the lawyers say that fasting Muslims should receive their afternoon and evening meals after sundown. If Glades is not able to accommodate the detainees’ dietary needs, it should “provide a compelling reason that doing so is not possible.”
The NDS specifically name kufis as a type of religious headwear that “is permitted in all areas of the facility, subject to the normal considerations of security and good order, including inspections by staff.” This runs contrary to the assertion in the letter that detainees were told they could not wear a kufi.
The 2000 NDS are the least protective standards that apply to immigrant detainees, which makes it all the more jarring that Glades is not meeting even those requirements, Saei said. (In 2011, ICE released a more stringent set of standards that generally is enforced at “dedicated” facilities, which house only ICE detainees.)
The lack of oversight of the county jails is the crux of the problem, Lehner said. “Without any oversight by ICE, there is really no incentive for a facility like Glades to do things like provide for halal meals or medical care beyond just a basic infirmary that gives out Advil,” she said.
In the letter, the lawyers laid out a number of demands for ICE and the Glades facility, including immediate access to the Ramadan list for Muslims who’ve been denied it and the provision of hot, nutritionally satisfying meals for all those who are fasting. The groups also ask for assurances when it comes to the provision of halal meals, scheduling and cancelation of Friday prayers, access to the Quran and prayer rugs, and an end to the discriminatory targeting of men who wear kufis.
Read it via The Intercept here.