PA Post investigation prompts legal action at Pa. jails

By request, the Islamic Community Center in Lancaster provides inmates Qurans and prayer rugs for free. Last year, the organization gave out 100 Qurans to inmates who asked for one. (Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post)

By request, the Islamic Community Center in Lancaster provides inmates Qurans and prayer rugs for free. Last year, the organization gave out 100 Qurans to inmates who asked for one. (Joseph Darius Jaafari / PA Post)

This story originally appeared on PA Post.

A PA Post investigation into the costs of religious books and other materials prompted a national religious liberties organization to demand that six Pennsylvania jails cease charging Muslim inmates more for religious items than Christian prisoners.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State issued a demand letter (a formal legal notice) to multiple wardens and corrections directors, laying the groundwork for a potential lawsuit.

Last month, PA Post reviewed commissary menus from corrections facilities in 20 counties and found that in almost every jail where Qurans are sold, they are priced as much as four times more than Bibles. That price discrepancy, legal experts argued, could be unconstitutional.

“Our country promises religious freedom for everyone, including people who are incarcerated,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director at Americans United, in a press release. “That means jails and prisons must provide equal opportunities for all prisoners to practice their faith.”

Federal law requires that prisons grant inmates equal access to religious items. In many Pennsylvania jails, corrections officials work with local mosques and churches to obtain free or low-cost religious texts. But not all jails or prisons make this effort.

Where no religious items are made available for free, inmates can purchase the items through the jail’s commissary. For Muslim prisoners confined in the 12 jails PA Post reviewed, that would require in some cases as much as $50 to purchase necessary religious prayer materials. Costs for Christian items were significantly lower in almost every case.

Wardens interviewed by PA Post said they don’t set the prices. But the demand letter from Americans United argued jails can’t simply pass blame to third-party commissary providers, as the federal law requires prisons to seek out cheap alternatives for religious texts.

“There are almost certainly avenues by which you can obtain the items at issue more cheaply if the vendor will not negotiate a lower price,” the letter read.

The jails have 30 days to respond to Americans United, after which the organization could proceed with a lawsuit.

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