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Complaints after CT prison halts Muslim prayer services for weeks

The entrance to York Correctional Institution.
Cloe Poisson
CT Mirror
The entrance to York Correctional Institution.

Scott Sheppard converted to Islam roughly six months ago, and it changed his life. He finally felt at peace, a sense of belonging, like he fit in somewhere. Nearing the end of a 15-year sentence at York Correctional Institution for first-degree assault, his newfound faith also aided in his rehabilitation.

“My place of worship allows me to be around those who share my faith. We talk about things that others can’t relate to,” Sheppard said. “Our worship services provide us with healing, safety and security.”

But in mid-November, Sheppard said he was notified that the Niantic prison was cutting the work hours of the imam who led Taleem services on Wednesdays. Prior to that, Jum’ah services on Fridays also stopped. Muslims at the only women’s prison in Connecticut were left to themselves.

The lack of congregational services has lasted for weeks, and it has created significant distress for Sheppard, a transgender man, and other incarcerated people in the facility.

“I am so upset over this,” Sheppard said.

“Islam is my life,” he added.

For Muslims, congregational prayer has more spiritual and social significance than prayer by oneself. However, the DOC does not allow congregations without an authorized chaplain or a religious volunteer who practices the same religion, which has left people with serious questions about the constitutionality and legality of the prison’s decision to stop services.

“Practice of the religion does not merely mean that prison guards do not allow them to pray,” said Maryam Bitar, a Hartford-based civil rights attorney. “The restriction also means that if they do not provide a pure or proper place for the prayers, that by itself is a restriction and a violation of the Constitution.”

The timing was meaningful to Sheppard; services halted during an escalating war between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of more than 17,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Palestinian, and sharp increases in Islamophobia. Nearly 98% of all Palestinians are Muslims.

The DOC’s director of external affairs, Ashley McCarthy, said on Wednesday that a staffing shortage was the reason for the interruption, not to cut hours or because of the war.

McCarthy said one of two imams, Larry Baha, recently left the agency, and the other, Sami Shamma, had been working overtime at York on Wednesdays on a temporary basis. She said the facility plans to resume services on Friday and that a full-time imam would start on Dec. 14.

But for nearly a month, York has not provided congregational prayer for Muslims. Staffing shortages aren’t as prevalent for other religious services, McCarthy said, and there’s been no indication of interruptions with other groups.

It is also unclear why the prison stopped allowing Shamma, a full-time chaplain at MacDougall-Walker Correctional in Suffield, to work overtime at York until it could find a permanent imam.

Reached by phone, Shamma declined to comment. Baha, the imam who recently resigned, did not return calls for comment. Multiple sources said, however, that the stoppage was due to York cutting hours.

In letter exchanges with the CT Mirror, Sheppard said he was told by staff that because of York’s status as a women’s facility, it was not a priority to have an imam present.

“Now because I am speaking up, and emails are being sent, and I’m filing grievances, DOC puts on the act to cover their behinds,” Sheppard said. “They act like they care, but I don’t believe that. If that was the case, why would you cut overtime hours from our only service left, preventing the Imam from coming?”

The U.S. and Connecticut constitutions, as well as both federal and state law, prohibit the DOC from placing any burden on religious expression unless it can demonstrate that its actions are “to further a compelling governmental interest and are the least restrictive ways of doing so.”

Courts have ruled that a variety of practices constitute “religious exercise,” including attending religious services, joining prayer groups and receiving reading materials.

As recently as 2016, Connecticut agreed to settle a federal case centered on the religious expressions of three prisoners. One claim involved Kevin Harris, who sought the DOC’s recognition of the Five-Percent Nation and alleged that his reading materials were seized because prison officials considered them contraband. He was effectively “barred from practicing his religion in any way,” according to his legal complaint.

McCarthy said the DOC understands its obligations under federal and state law and that the agency has prioritized hiring a full-time imam for the York facility.

“If anything, this is monumental for York, because for the first time ever, they have an imam assigned to their facility,” said McCarthy, adding that the imam will also work at Corrigan Correctional. “They have a person that’s dedicated to them versus just relying on outside volunteers. So that is a way more permanent solution to making sure that things operate in a more seamless way.”

But the DOC was likely required by law to provide an alternative means for incarcerated people to practice the religion while it searched for the new imam, according to Bitar.

“If you discriminated against me, if you temporarily prevented me from practicing my rights, it doesn’t matter that it was for a short or temporary time,” said Bitar, adding that if there was no compelling reason for the interruption of services, an incarcerated person at York could still make a legal claim against the state.

Bitar, who is Muslim, noted that people devoted to the religion pray five times a day. Missing any prayers could lead to significant mental and emotional distress, in part because Muslims rely heavily on their communication with God.

“You cannot make up for the prayers that you missed,” Bitar said.

For incarcerated people, religious participation has demonstrated positive effects on personal well-being. Sheppard believes his experience attests to that.

The 36-year-old has spent nearly 13 years incarcerated, with many of them in solitary confinement because he would “get in a lot of trouble.” Once he began his gender transition in 2018, he said everything changed for the better.

He now participates full-time as a truck worker in the commissary warehouse, attends night classes to earn his associate’s degree and more recently started attending Muslim services faithfully, twice a week.

“Knowing we have a safe space for us Muslims to gather together, we have solidarity,” Sheppard said.

On Wednesday, he said the prison told a group of nearly a dozen Muslims that it now has a permanent imam because of his raising awareness about the recent series of events.

“It is sad that, had I not spoken up about this issue, the facility had no intentions of finding an Imam for us,” Sheppard said. “I am happy I helped not only myself but the other Muslims here at York.”

This story was first published Dec. 7, 2023 by The Connecticut Mirror.

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