INDIANAPOLIS — A lawyer who helped American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslim inmates win the right to hold daily group prayers in a high-security unit said he'll ask a judge to order that they be allowed to pray together five times a day, as Islam requires.
Chris Burke, a Bureau of Federal Prisons spokesman, said that since March 12, inmates of all religions housed in the Terre Haute federal prison's Communications Management Unit have been allowed to pray together three times per day.
American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana legal director Ken Falk, who represented Lindh in his lawsuit against the prison bureau, said U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson's Jan. 11 ruling requires that the prison allow five daily group prayers.
"Basically, it's our contention that they're not complying with the court order," Falk said Tuesday. "The judge's order is pretty clear."
A prison bulletin dated March 12 says only 10 inmates at a time can use the unit's multi-purpose room for group prayer during the hours the room is open. It wasn't clear how prison officials arrived at the limit of three prayers a day.
Those housed in Lindh's unit are considered extreme security risks and their interactions are closely monitored. Until this month, inmates housed in the unit were only allowed to pray together once per week or during Ramadan or on other significant religious holidays. At other times, inmates had to pray alone in their cells and hope to hear each other through the walls.
Magnus-Stinson found the policy violated a 1993 law banning the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest, and the government chose not to appeal her ruling.
Magnus-Stinson said in court documents that it was clear that 32-year-old Lindh sincerely believed that Islam mandates that Muslims pray together five times a day and federal law requires the prison to accommodate his beliefs – which praying simultaneously inside their cells did not do. She also noted that Muslim inmates in other federal prisons were allowed to hold daily group prayers.
"A central tenet of the Islamic faith is the obligation for adult Muslims to engage in five daily prayers, or Salat," she wrote. "By prohibiting Mr. Lindh and the other Muslim prisoners who hold similar beliefs in the CMU from praying in each other's presence, the Warden has denied Mr. Lindh and these other prisoners the religious exercise of daily group prayer," she said elsewhere.
Prison officials said during the trial on Lindh's lawsuit that allowing group prayers every day would pose a security risk and that inmates had used religion as cover for gang-like activity, but the judge dismissed those arguments as insubstantial.
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 because of his involvement. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.
In 2001, Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops and accused of fighting for the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie "Malcolm X" and became interested in Islam. He converted to Islam at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a "pure Islamic state."
In 2002, Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He had been charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists, but those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007. He is eligible for release in 2019.
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