Orange County Jail Ends Religious Rewards Program

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Sent: Thursday, February 06, 2003 7:25 PM

Orange County Jail Ends Religious Rewards Program

POSTED: 6:48 a.m. EST February 6, 2003

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orange County's jail discontinued a practice of rewarding inmates with time off their sentences for attending religious services, in part because a Muslim inmate and a national Islamic advocacy group complained the policy was discriminatory. 

The jail policy permitted prisoners to deduct up to six days off a month off their sentence if they took part in one of several Christian-based programs. 

It was discontinued Saturday after months of complaints that Muslims were unfairly excluded from the policy, and Christians had much more access to religious leaders and materials than members of other religions. 

"It's a valid criticism of the programming that was there," said Orange County Corrections Chief Timothy Ryan. "It wasn't equitable in the sense that if you were Jewish or an atheist, you should have access to the same opportunities." 

Todarian Rodriguez Harvey, a Muslim inmate, surrendered to authorities last June in a 1992 cocaine trafficking case. 

Since then, Harvey has complained to the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations that Christian inmates had ready access to chaplains and Bibles without questions asked, while Muslim inmates did not regularly have access to an Islamic leader and the Quran, Islam's holy book. 

The council then contacted the U.S. Department of Justice's civil-rights division and accused the county facility of religious discrimination. In a jail survey last fall of 2,500 inmates, 74 identified themselves as Muslims. 

Ryan said the jail was exposing itself to a lawsuit if the practice wasn't stopped. 

"I'm glad they took a look at the policy because that was definitely discriminatory," said Khadija Athman, the civil-rights adviser who sought the federal government's help. "At least the jail is trying to treat all inmates equally irrespective of their background or religious affiliation." 

Muslim inmates have acknowledged their concerns are being addressed. They can now meet on a regular basis, hold weekly prayer sessions and have access to a volunteer Islamic leader.