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Muslim detainees sue Spokane County Jail alleging refusal to serve halal meats for Ramadan

UPDATED: Fri., May 13, 2022

Spokane County Jail.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane County Jail. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Four Muslim detainees in the Spokane County Jail filed a U.S. District Court lawsuit April 11 citing religious discrimination, charging that their requests for halal food before and during Ramadan were not met in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Halal, the Arabic word for permissible, highlights what is and is not allowed for Muslims. Halal foods must be blessed and prepared in a specific way to be in accordance with the Quran’s practices.

Ernest Carter, who also goes by the name Le’Taxione, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Muslim detainees Benjamin Higgins, Erik Sandoval and Dean Albrecht. The lawsuit alleges 19 instances of religious discrimination, many involving dietary requests, that date back to January 2021.

Higgins, who was released after his burglary charge was dropped, highlighted his concerns with requesting halal foods, including issues with food preparation. Higgins believes the jail’s refusal to serve him food that follows the tenets of his faith is religious discrimination.

“There’s a difference between vegetarians, vegan and halal,” Higgins said. “But they use the same utensils, which have broth and meat and cross-contamination with everything.

“They’re basically discriminating against our religion, period.”

As outlined in the Spokane County Jail’s offender handbook, detainees’ requests for special diets based on religious reasons “must be submitted to the Food Manager who coordinates with the Detention Services Chaplain to determine validity of the request before a final decision is made.”

Don Hooper, the interim director of the Spokane County Jail, stated in an email last month that the detainees would receive halal meals by April 15, nearly three weeks into Ramadan.

Before that, he said, detainees were given bean patties or peanut butter as a source of protein. “They recently got halal meats …” he said. “I think that was something, that all meals within the last few weeks met halal requirements.”

Hooper addressed one of the prisoner’s other complaints surrounding a lack of prayer rugs, which Muslims use during their five daily prayers. He said Muslim detainees are given “extra blankets or extra towels” in lieu of prayer rugs. He also said the process of requests is ultimately up to the jail’s chaplain, Roger Swift.

“With our chaplain, we look at each individual request and see if we can accommodate it on a case-by-case basis,” Hooper said. “We don’t get a lot (of requests), but it’s in our policy itself. We’ll just look at each one and determine, can we accommodate it safely and securely in our facility.

“We confirm to the chaplain if it’s appropriate for the religion and appropriate for our facility.”

Swift, the jail’s chaplain for 35 years, confirmed it is a case-by-case scenario.

“There’s a request form, so we fill out a request form and we give them the choices that I have,” Swift said. “If I have it, I give it to them. The diet is not up to me; it’s up to the cooks. The only thing I can help with is the book and the only book you have is the Quran.”

Some objects, such as prayer oil and beads, are not available at the jail, Hooper said. Requests are reviewed by Swift and the custody lieutenant, Lewis Wirth, to ensure religious items “can be safely accommodated.”

“Prayer and head coverings are things we accommodate. Oil and beads I’m not familiar with it, but we don’t get a lot of requests at the prison level,” Hooper said.

He added they typically would prefer items that are plastic and not of significant monetary value.

As for the halal meals, Sandoval, who is awaiting trial on drug-related assault and weapons charges, reaffirmed the grievances filed within Carter’s lawsuit. The status of his requests for a halal diet meal is unclear.

Sandoval said he hadn’t received any confirmation, answers or replies to his requests.

As of May 2, Sandoval hadn’t received any halal meals that food services manager Scott Baum stated were set to be delivered on April 15. In lieu of halal foods, Sandoval has been eating what is provided, including turkey gravy and mashed potatoes, shepherd’s pie and bologna sandwiches for lunch and dinner. None of these meals met halal requirements.

“We’ve been eating the regular trays in the commissary,” Sandoval said. “I didn’t want to get put on vegetarian because I’m not a vegetarian, so I had to keep the regular meals they give us.”

Of the four Muslim detainees, only two remain in Spokane County custody: Sandoval and Carter, who awaits trial on domestic violence charges. Higgins was released, and Albrecht on April 20 pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including theft, possession of stolen property and failure to remain at the scene of an accident, and is serving his sentence at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton.

In addition to the issue with food, Sandoval said during Ramadan, jail officials revoked detainees’ access to tablets without cause. Detainees can access reading material on tablets, including a popular Muslim podcast. Jail officials stated they do not have details on this specific incident.

“(A correctional officer said), ‘You guys are getting your tablets taken away because the vents weren’t plugged in,’ which we didn’t do, then we looked it up and they’re not allowed to take our tablets unless we have a written infraction,” Sandoval said. “We told the sergeant that … and he said he would look into it, come back and let us know. They took our tablets and never came back, then a week later they split (our cell) up.”

Baum could not be reached for comment. Spokane County Jail receives its food from the manufacturing company SYSCO out of Boise.

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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