Top U.S. prison chaplain: Muslim clerics advised on prayer policy

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The federal prison system strives to accommodate inmates’ religious beliefs, when possible, but it can’t allow daily group prayer for American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslims because of security and logistical concerns, the prison system’s head chaplain said.

The rule allowing only supervised group prayer at federal prisons was put in place following a 2004 report by the inspector general that raised concerns about efforts to radicalize Muslim inmates after the Sept. 11 attacks, Michael R. Smith Sr., the U.S. Bureau of Prisons‘ chief chaplain, testified Monday.

There are only 14 Muslim chaplains to serve more than 100 federal prisons, making it impossible to conduct supervised daily group prayer, Mr. Smith testified on the first day of trial in Lindh’s lawsuit challenging the rule.

Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence at the tightly controlled Communications Management Unit at a federal prison in Terre Haute, scoffed at the government’s argument that daily group prayer would endanger prison security. He pointed out that inmates are allowed to talk, play games and engage in other activities while out of their cells, which is most of the day.

“There are no legitimate security risks by allowing us to pray in congregations,” he said. “It’s absolutely absurd.”

Lindh, who aided the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is one of 24 Muslims among the 43 inmates in the prison unit.

According to court documents, Muslims in the tightly controlled Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute are allowed to pray together only once a week, except during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Other faiths’ gatherings are also limited. At other times, they must pray alone in their individual cells, which Lindh said doesn’t meet the requirements of his school of Islam.

“I believe it’s obligatory,” Lindh said of daily group prayer during his testimony Monday. “If you’re required to do it in congregation and you don’t, then that’s a sin.”

Mr. Smith testified that the Bureau of Prisons consulted Muslim clerics while establishing its rules and that they told the agency that the five daily prayers “are a major part and in a sense, mandatory.”

Lindh claims the prison policy flouts a 1993 law restraining the government from curtailing religious expression without showing it has a compelling interest.

But Mr. Smith testified that security concerns are paramount and that religious gatherings can sometimes be used to mask gang activity behind bars.

The government claims in court documents that Lindh delivered a radical sermon to other Muslim prisoners in February. It also says he delivered the sermon entirely in Arabic, which is not allowed under Bureau of Prison regulations that require all speech but ritual prayers to be in English.

Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which is handling Lindh’s case, said the speech wasn’t radical and Lindh wasn’t disciplined for it.

Prisoners in Lindh’s unit are under open and covert audio and video surveillance, and except for talks with their attorneys, all of their phone calls are monitored. Prisoners aren’t allowed to touch family members during tightly controlled visits. Without such strong security, the government claims, inmates would be able to conspire with outsiders to commit terrorist or criminal acts.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.

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