Recent Oklahoma headlines and blogs across America have expressed dismay at the fact that Oklahoma prisoners have a right to practice their faith while incarcerated—in particular Muslim inmate rights to a halal (Muslim compliant) meal.
While inmates are definitely denied the same liberties as free citizens, they are not deprived of all their rights as human beings. Among the rights that our nation has customarily recognized for inmates are the right against cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to equal treatment.
The headlines which sparked our interest focus on an inmate from the GEO Group Inc. Lawton Correctional Facility—one of Oklahoma’s six privately owned prisons. The Lawton Correctional Facility was sued when a Muslim inmate argued the meals provided forced him to violate his religious dietary customs. The courts found in the inmate’s favor, as they have in various other states, and the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (OKDOC) conceded and began to provide the halal meals at its institutions.
The important thing to note is that OKDOC was able to accommodate this lawsuit and provide the meals immediately. How easy is it to find halal meals for Muslim inmates?
Fortunately for Muslim inmates, but unfortunately for all inmates, halal meal vendors are simply a part of this nation’s growing prison industry. Thanks to private companies such as those that own Oklahoma’s private prisons, other industries that provide prisoner services have grown—including food vendors who specialize in pre-packaged meals that comply with religious dietary customs. The court in the case mentioned above noted that these vendors already serve the Jewish inmates of Oklahoma with kosher meals, thus it is reasonable to contract those same vendors to accommodate Muslim inmates with halal meals.
On the other hand, the state of Oklahoma was unable to prove that there was a rationally related state interest to deny Muslim inmates halal meals. Unfortunately for many naysayers, unequal treatment of Muslims, or cutting costs of for-profit prisons are not considered state interests.
The truth is that Muslim inmate diets are not as unique or novel as headlines make them appear. What is worthy of our headlines is the attempt of private prisons to cut costs by denying prisoner rights. We hope people would express as much concern and curiosity with an industry where profits are directly linked to the number of prison beds we can fill. Until then we shouldn’t expect our headlines to mention that our country boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world, or that Oklahoma boasts the largest rate of female incarceration in the nation.
These issues require debate and dialogue. Let’s move past headlines about Muslim inmates seeking equal treatment, and let’s begin the real discussion about the overall ills with our private prison industry.