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Ohio Muslim prisoners sue over non-halal meals

Country/Region: United States

A Muslim man on death row in America has filed a lawsuit that alleges a civil rights violation, claiming that the Ohio prison system is denying him meals prepared according to Islamic law.

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Abdul Awkal, whose case is supported by a second inmate who is not on death row, argues that the prison system's failure to provide halal meals is a restraint on his religious freedoms. The inmates say that their food must be prepared in a specific fashion. If meat is included, the animal’s throat must be slit and its blood drained. At the same time, in accordance with sharia, the slaughterman, facing Mecca, proclaims the Arabic words Bismillah Allahu Akbar, meaning "In the name of god, god is great".   

What is halal?   Read more

"The issue of eating halal meals is especially important to me because I face a death sentence," Awkal said in a federal court filing earlier this year. "It is important to me that I follow the requirements of my faith as I approach death."

In response, Ohio state has already removed pork from its menus, but David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which brought the lawsuit on Awkal's behalf, said that it will continue. Removing pork from the menu does not address the issue of slaughtering methods used for other meat.

A judge has given lawyers and inmates for the state until next month to finish filing documents in support of their arguments, ahead of an expected trial in January.

Awkal, 52, is scheduled to die in June for killing his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law, Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz, in 1992. Joining Awkal in the lawsuit is Cornelius Causey, 35, who is serving 15 years to life for murder and aggravated robbery.

Ohio argues that it provides both non-pork and vegetarian meals to Muslims and says that the courts have supported this practice. The state also says that providing halal meals could hurt Ohio financially, given their current budget. As many as 2,000 inmates could demand new diets.

"The complete restructuring of ODRC's (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) food service administration and preparation, at a cost of millions to the State of Ohio during fiscal crisis, is at stake," Ryan Dolan, an assistant attorney general, argued in a court filing.

Ohio included in its response to the lawsuit a document from Imam Sunni-Ali Islam, a Muslim who regularly counsels Muslim inmates; he said that while he thought it was problematic that Ohio provided kosher but not halal meals, he did not think that this practice amounted to religious discrimination.

The state's guidelines for Jewish prisoners say, "The Department will accommodate kosher dietary restrictions to recognized Jewish inmates."

For Muslim inmates, prison rules say, "The diet will be free of all pork and products containing or derived from pork. The institution will provide nutritionally adequate meat and non-meat alternatives."

Elsewhere in the United States, California serves about 4,100 halal meals a day to inmates at a cost of about $3.50 per day, compared with about $2.90 a day for regular prison meals.

Arizona provides vegetarian and other options but does not provide meals specified as halal.

Similarly, Muslim inmates in Texas can select regular, meat-free or pork-free meals but are not served halal meals. Massachusetts serves both kosher and halal meals.

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