GA jail agrees to Ramadan meal schedule, after affecting long-term health of 'food deprived' inmate

GA jail agrees to Ramadan meal schedule, after affecting long-term health of 'food deprived' inmate
DeKalb County Jail is one of many correctional facilities across the United States that has been accused of not meeting Muslim inmates' dietary needs, in some cases leading to concerns over long-term health damage from "food deprivation".
4 min read
Washington, D.C.
21 April, 2022
Incarcerated Muslims across the United States are often denied their religious freedom. [Getty]

The DeKalb County Jail near Atlanta has agreed to adhere to Ramadan mealtimes and dietary guidelines following a lawsuit by the national office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and its Georgia chapter. 

"This important settlement sends the message that religious rights will be protected and that it is important to stand up for those rights," said CAIR national litigation director Lena Masri in a public statement.  

Though the response comes as welcome news to the defendant, this comes after a prolonged period of insufficient nutrition that might have caused long-term health problems, including organ damage, given several pre-existing health conditions, the complaint noted. 

The lawsuit was filed on Monday after the wife of a Muslim detainee, who has been held since September, complained that he had not been receiving food compliant with his faith. The plaintiff is a detainee at the jail and the defendants are members of the DeKalb County Sheriff's office and administration at the jail, including the chief of medical services, as well as the meal services company.

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Under its section for food service contractors, the website of the DeKalb County Sheriff's office states that it makes meal provisions for inmates following a halal diet and for religious holidays.

"Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence," Murtaza Khwaja, executive director at CAIR-Georgia, told The New Arab, noting that this happens across the country and not just during Ramadan.

The Muslim holy month, however, made the matter more urgent, he added.

Prior to the suit, inmates had not been given prayer mats and did not have access to clocks or watches, making it difficult to pray in accordance with their customs.

The non-Ramadan-compliant mealtimes have meant inmates have often been deprived of pre-sunrise and post-sunset meals, even though these meals, most of them pre-packaged, can be easily distributed.

The complaint describes this as a "starvation diet" and notes that more often than not the defendant has been consuming 400 to 700 calories in a day, far below the minimum caloric intake to remain healthy, leading to the physical effects of starvation, which have already taken a toll on his weight and possibly his organs.

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The complaint also notes that the defendant was deprived of all meals for three consecutive days during the first week of Ramadan, during which time his commissary privileges were revoked, meaning he could not purchase food from the commissary at suitable hours.

Though the plaintiff, in this case, is a pre-trial detainee, meaning he has not been through the justice process or been convicted of a crime, his lawyer for this suit emphasises the importance of upholding the law, regardless of the inmate’s status.

"Just because somebody's incarcerated or detained, you don't abandon the constitution at the doorstep of the jail," Javeria Jamil, legal and policy director at CAIR-Georgia, told TNA. "The constitution guarantees religious freedom."

This is not the first time inmates have complained about the food services of Trinity Services Group, the contractor that provides food for DeKalb County Jail as well as to correctional facilities in more than 40 other states and US territories.

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In 2016, inmates in Michigan organised protests against their food quality, an unusual move given the pervasive divisions that exist among incarcerated individuals.

This case, in addition to its focus on religious discrimination, also brings to light other issues, such as the multitude of entities involved in the United States's incarceration system, increasingly the case since the proliferation of privatisation more than three decades ago.

Though commonplace, the corporate profit-making from the US's corrections industry has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, with Joe Biden making it one of this presidential campaign promises to end private detention facilities. In 2021, he ordered the termination of private prison contracts, though it appears this only applies to new facilities and not to existing contractors and those that do not directly run facilities.

One common criticism of private contractors providing food to corrections facilities is that the contract is typically awarded to the lowest bidder, often leading to unusually low-quality food. 

As noted in the complaint, Trinity Services Group, a private company based in Florida, specialises in correctional food services. According to the company's website, it is the largest contractor dedicated to the corrections industry. Its parent company is H.I.G. Capital, a Miami-based $US 48 billion private equity firm, whose founders and CEOs Tony Tamer and Sami Mnaymneh are ranked among the wealthiest Lebanese and Floridian billionaires.

The New Arab contacted the DeKalb County Attorney and Trinity Services Group for comment Wednesday afternoon, but both were unavailable.