Federal appeals court: Prison officials violated Muslim inmate’s rights

Friday, July 16, 1999

Colorado prison officials violated the First Amendment rights of a Muslim prisoner by interfering with his ability to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, a federal appeals court ruled recently.

Akeem Abdul Makin, who was incarcerated in the Colorado prison system in 1993 and 1994, sued prison officials for not providing meals to him between sunset and dawn.

Instead, the officials gave Makin his food at the regular time. Makin claimed that even though he was still able to fast by not eating meals during daylight hours, prison officials infringed on his free exercise of religion rights by making it harder for him to comply with his religion. According to Makin, the delivery of meals during the day prevented him from enjoying the full spiritual experience of Ramadan.

Prison officials refused to accommodate Makin's special food-delivery needs because a policy states that inmates cannot have special meal privileges. Makin had been placed in punitive segregation for possession of contraband.

A federal judge ruled in April 1998 in favor of Makin, finding that prison officials violated his clearly established constitutional right to practice his religious faith.

On July 12, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court's opinion in Makin v. Colorado Department of Corrections.

“Even though they are incarcerated, prisoners retain fundamental constitutional rights,” the appeals court wrote. “These rights include the reasonable opportunity to pursue one's religion as guaranteed by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”

The 10th Circuit analyzed Makin's First Amendment claims under a test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1987 decision Turner v. Safley. The high court in Safley wrote that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”

In the Makin case, the Colorado prison officials claimed that denial of special meal accommodations to prisoners like Makin who were in segregated cells served several “legitimate penological interests” — deterrence of improper conduct, rehabilitation, prison security and budgetary concerns.

However, the appeals court noted that the prison officials cited “no evidence” showing that their policy “had any deterrent or rehabilitative goal, nor authority supporting their implied contention that restriction of religious freedom is a proper tool for deterring improper conduct.”

The appeals court also relied on one prison official's testimony that “the intent [of the policy] would not have been rehabilitation or deterrence.”

The 10th Circuit then addressed the stated goals of security and budgetary considerations. The appeals court cited testimony of another prison official who stated that the prison could have easily accommodated Makin's religiously required diet without seriously affecting security or the budget.

“The district court correctly held that defendants' failure to accommodate Mr. Makin's meal requirements during Ramadan … violated his First Amendment right to freely exercise his religion,” the appeals court concluded.

Ken Lane, spokesman for the Colorado attorney general's office, said that the attorney general had “no comment” on the decision, but “we will check with the clients to see” if they want to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vincent Todd, Makin's attorney, said: “The 10th Circuit appropriately pointed out that the state's arguments did not match the evidence.”