Death row inmate sues over lack of halal meals

A Muslim death row inmate says the Ohio state prison system is denying him meals prepared according to Islamic law while at the same time providing kosher meals to Jewish prisoners.

The state says it has already removed pork from its menus in response to the lawsuit brought by condemned inmate Abdul Awkal, who argues the prison system’s failure to provide halal meals is a restraint on his religious freedoms.

Awkal, joined by a second inmate not on death row, says the vegetarian and non-pork options offered by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction aren’t good enough. The inmates say food must be prepared according to halal practice.

“The issue of eating halal meals is especially important to me because I face a death sentence,” Awkal said in a filing in federal court this year.

“It is important to me that I follow the requirements of my faith as I approach death.”

 The state’s recent decision to drop pork from all meals accommodates religious preferences without jeopardising security, said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for the state corrections department.

It “eliminates any doubt that Muslims or any inmate who has a specific prohibition against pork products receives pork inadvertently or otherwise”.

But the state’s announcement doesn’t solve the problem that meat isn’t slaughtered in the appropriate way for Muslim inmates who adhere to religious tradition, said David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Centre, which brought the lawsuit on Awkal’s behalf.

He said the lawsuit would continue.

A judge has given lawyers and inmates for the state until next month to finish filing documents bolstering their arguments before an expected January trial.

Awkal, 52, is scheduled to die in June for killing his estranged wife, Latife Awkal, and brother-in-law Mahmoud Abdul-Aziz in 1992, in a room in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court.

Joining Awkal in the lawsuit is Cornelius Causey, 35, serving 15 years to life for murder and aggravated robbery.

Ohio says that providing halal meals could hurt the state financially, given the current budget situation.

Ohio included in its response to the lawsuit a document from a Muslim who does regular spiritual counselling of Muslim inmates.

Although Imam Sunni-Ali Islam said he thought it was problematic that Ohio provided kosher but not halal meals, he said he did not think it rose to the level of religious discrimination.

Ohio spends about US$3.50 to US$7 ($4.65 to $9.30) on kosher meals compared with US$1.70 for regular meals, LoParo said.

Ohio says requiring halal meals could mean new dietary plans for as many as 2000 inmates, while Awkal’s lawyers believe the figure is lower because not all Muslims eat halal meals.

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