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Published September 02 2012

Inmate: Muslims treated unfairly at Cass County Jail

FARGO – Denying one inmate’s claims of discrimination, the Cass County Jail supervisor said the facility makes “every effort that we can reasonably make” to accommodate Muslims observing the holy month of Ramadan.

Tyrone Jones, a 33-year-old Fargo man being held in the jail on charges of burglary, simple assault and violation of a protection order, recently sent a letter to The Forum claiming that Muslim inmates were being treated unfairly in their attempts to practice their religion through prayer and observe Ramadan through fasting during daylight hours.

In an interview last week, Cass County Sheriff’s Capt. Judy Tollefson, who supervises the jail at 450 34th St. S., responded to the claims in Jones’ letter.

Prayer issues raised

Jones, who was charged last December and arrested on a warrant in mid-June, wrote that as someone new to the religion, the only way he can receive teachings from other Muslim inmates is in the jail’s dayroom area.

He wrote that the problems started when he and fellow Muslims were told they couldn’t pray in the dayroom in front of other inmates because “someone might not like us praying and may kick us in the face as we are bowing.”

Tollefson confirmed that inmates aren’t allowed to pray on the floor in the dayroom because of the potential for someone getting kicked, tripped over or otherwise injured.

“That’s for safety and security reasons, but they can pray in their cells,” she said.

Jones also wrote that Christian inmates were allowed to hold a prayer service in the dayroom but Muslims were not. Tollefson said that’s false.

“There are Christian gatherings that occur, but they occur in the conference rooms of the housing unit, not in the dayrooms, so people aren’t exposed if they don’t choose to be exposed,” she said.

The same rooms are open to Muslim inmates, she said. Asked if they use the rooms, she said, “As far as I understand, yes.

“But those are only available to them when they’re out of their cells,” she added. “It depends on the daily schedule of the housing unit that they’re in. So they may have gotten some ‘no’s’ based on the fact that they wanted to do it during a scheduled lockdown time.”

Meal times vary

Though they are fasting during daylight hours, Muslim inmates are still forced to come out of their cells while everyone else is eating, “which will weaken our fasting,” Jones wrote.

Tollefson said inmates can stay in their rooms during breakfast, which is served at 6 a.m., but not during lunch at 12:15 p.m. and dinner at 5:15 p.m.

“The reason for that is so that we see them up and moving around and know that they’re fine and they’re well and all those other things that we look for,” she said.

Jones wrote that after Muslim inmates started to complain about prayer and meal issues, their meals started coming late – one time, so late they couldn’t eat because it was past the hour before daybreak.

“We had to wait 24 hours before we were able to eat again,” he wrote. “I don’t believe these are mistakes, I believe their actions are deliberately done to see if we are willing to give up our religious beliefs and stop fasting.”

Tollefson noted the times for Ramadan meals vary for each day that passes during the month.

“I know early on we had some adjustments, and there were a couple of complaints that I’m aware of where the meals didn’t come as soon as they should have,” she said. “I’m not aware that they’ve totally missed the timeline.”

To improve the situation, she said, jail staff went online, researched the daylight hours for every day during Ramadan and posted them at officers’ stations so they know what time to serve morning meals.

“We make every effort that we can reasonably make for them to observe this,” she said. “It’s really not a problem because there’s not a lot of them.”

Jones ended his letter by stating that he’s seeking to file a discrimination claim in civil court and is “currently looking for the right attorney.”

A message left for Jones through jail staff was not returned. His attorney in the burglary case, Patrick O’Day, has previously told The Forum he doesn’t comment to the media.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528