Muslim inmates at the Metro West Detention Center didn’t greet Wilfredo Ruiz with a hello during his visit Wednesday afternoon.
“The first thing they tell you is, ‘Hey attorney, we’re not receiving the diet,’” said Ruiz, a legal counsel with the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida.
The inmates are referring to the halal diet, which follows Islamic principles that prohibit certain animals, such as pig, to be eaten, and requires animals that are eaten to be slaughtered in a particular manner. Halal foods also cannot come into contact with non-Halal foods.
Muslims are permitted to eat kosher items and in the past, Muslim inmates in Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (MDCR) facilities were given kosher food.
This practice ended in October when they were instead given the same food as the general population, prompting more than 35 Muslim inmates to complain to CAIR Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida about not being provided the proper faith-based meal.
The ACLU of Florida and CAIR Florida are working with the inmates to file formal grievances with the county’s corrections department. The two groups said they have informed MDCR that the general population diet does not comply with Islamic principles of halal, and thus violates Muslim prisoners’ rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law, according to a media release.
In addition, the two groups said they have told the MDCR about specific complaints of 17 Muslim inmates and say no changes have resulted.
“We get new inmates calling us all the time,” Thania Diaz Clevenger, civil rights director of CAIR Florida, said Wednesday.
The county’s corrections department says the meals they are providing the Muslim inmates meet Islamic halal principles, and that an imam who works with them approved the meals.
“Last month, we met with members of CAIR to discuss concerns related to the meals being offered to our Muslim inmates,” Janelle Hall, a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, said in a statement. “CAIR stated the halal meal is the only acceptable option for Muslim inmates.”
Hall said CAIR Florida representatives were informed that the department’s imam found the alternative meal currently offered to the Muslim inmates to be in accordance with Muslim principles.
“Although MDCR consistently meets the religious dietary needs of our inmate population, including those of the Muslim faith, CAIR was advised that we would give further consideration to the offering of halal meals as an additional option,” Hall said. “We will continue to work with CAIR and the Muslim community regarding issues that may affect our Muslim inmates and welcome assistance with identifying additional imams willing to volunteer their services.’’
Ruiz says there are more than 200 Muslim inmates of all ethnic and racial backgrounds in jail in Miami-Dade County. He points out that while Muslim inmates aren't given halal or kosher meals, inmates of other faiths are given meals that adhere to their dietary needs.
He brought this issue up during a January meeting of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. At that meeting, Miami Dade's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation director, Marydell Guevara, said the county did change the meal after talking to a volunteer imam.
“It was not something that we just changed because we decided to change it, again it was deep conversation and walking through the process with Imam Nassirnia, who has been serving as our volunteer imam for several years,” she said.
On Wednesday, representatives from the ACLU of Florida met with about a half dozen inmates in the Pre-Trial Detention Center at 1321 NW 13th St.; CAIR Florida met with more than a dozen at Metro West, 13850 NW 41st St.
They helped inmates fill out grievance documents and discussed what it’s like to practice Islam in jail.
Inmates told them that at meal times they’re praying over the food before eating, or eating around meat products.
Shalini Goel Agarwal, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, pointed out meals in jail tend to include meat – and since that meat isn’t slaughtered in accordance with Islamic principles, it’s not appropriate for Muslim inmates to eat it.
“They are taking different approaches,” said Agarwal. “Some are relying on food from the commissary.”
Commissary food can include chips, pre-packaged pastries and canned tuna, Agarwal said.
Diaz Clevenger of CAIR said she heard similar stories from inmates during her visit to the jail.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between starving yourself and practicing your religion,” she said.
Members of both organizations say they will continue to work with Muslim inmates until there is a solution. Ruiz says that if the matter cannot be resolved on an administration level, the next step is to take the case to federal court.
“There are basically two constitutional rights that are at stake here —freedom of religion and equal protection under the law,” he said.