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Religious Freedoms in Prison - Decades Apart

The American criminal justice system has long been plagued with unjust treatment of minorities. Black and African American Muslims experience intersectional Islamophobia. While cases have surfaced recently concerning the mistreatment of black Muslim people who are incarcerated, this problem is not new to our prisons.


In the 1960s, Thomas Cooper, a black prisoner in Illinois who was Muslim, declared that he was denied religious rights while in custody. While inmates of other religions were allowed their sacred texts, Cooper was not allowed to purchase and read the Quran or be visited by religious leaders of his faith. Law officials first argued that as a prisoner, some rights may not be granted that are granted to free individuals. It was also a common belief that the Muslim faith preaches the hatred of white races and the domination of theirs, which led many criminal justice employees to be afraid of allowing black Muslims religious freedom.

However, when the case was presented to the Supreme Court, it was decided that the Bill of Rights does indeed apply to in those who are incarcerated. This was monumental, as the Supreme Court rarely interjected beforehand in cases revolving situations in prison. Cooper v. Pate set a precedent for future cases involving religious discrimination and encouraged other black Muslim prisoners to protest against unfair treatment they had endured.


Even though the decision of Cooper v. Pate was in Cooper’s favor, religious and racial discrimination against black Muslims have continued. Recently, a black man who was Muslim on death row in Alabama requested the presence of an imam during his execution. Christian chaplains frequently console Christian inmates on death row when they take their last breath. However, Dominique Ray was not afforded the same religious liberties as other faiths. Ray’s case went through the Supreme Court, but he was still executed without an imam by his side for crimes he committed 19 years before.

Credit: Shutterstock


Soon after, a second black man who was Muslim in an Alabama prison, Charles Burton Jr., sought a religious presence during his execution. Burton’s case is scheduled for this year, 2021. Texas, a state that had allowed only Christian or Muslim chaplains, also banned all religious chaplains from execution chambers in order to avoid similar cases.


Photo Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice


Both Cooper and Ray’s cases depict a black man who is Muslim and thus denied rights that majority religions are provided while in prison. While Cooper was denied religious text and religious visitors in prison, Ray was denied the presence of a Muslim chaplain during his execution. As Cooper won his case and incited protests in prison, Ray lost and died without his last request, still encouraging others to come forward who were faced with the same fate. Cooper and Ray both experienced racism and Islamophobia in the prison system. In both cases, the Christian religion and white race was seen as the default and norm. The hatred of different religions and races runs deep in America, darkly illustrated through many prisoner rights cases. Instead of recognizing other religions, the American criminal justice system would rather strip religious privileges from all inmates. With an intersectional approach, and prisoners who fight to be heard, we can more accurately understand and respond to the mistreatment of black Muslims in prison and in court.

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