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Wyo. Lawsuit Alleges Prison Mealtime Violates Muslim Inmates' Freedom of Religion

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday claiming that a Wyoming State Penitentiary policy restricting prisoners' mealtimes violates the constitutional rights of two Muslim inmates.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court on behalf of Joseph Miller and Hurie Purdiman Jr., two inmates serving time at the penitentiary in Rawlins.

At issue is an alleged "20-minute rule" requiring inmates to eat their meals within 20 minutes after the food is delivered to a cell or common dining area, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit seeks for the inmates to be exempted from the rule because it forces them to choose between eating and practicing their religion.

Miller and Purdiman claim that meals have arrived at the same time of day that they're practicing prayers according to their Muslim faith. On other occasions, meals arrived during a period of religious fasting and then were confiscated before the fast ended at sunset.

"If someone has started their prayer, unless they're willing to interrupt their prayer and leave at that moment, they forgo their meal because (the guards) won't go back and open their cell doors," said Jennifer Horvath, staff attorney for Wyoming Chapter of the ACLU. "It's not unreasonable to ask for some extra time to finish their meals. They have a right to practice their religion, and the prison has been treating it as a privilege."

The lawsuit names Robert Lampert, director of the Department of Corrections, and Michael Murphy, warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary. It claims the prison's policy violates the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Lampert said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment directly on its claims. But he said the prison has measures in place to accommodate inmates' religious or health needs.

He said trays and utensils are generally collected less than 30 minutes from when they were delivered to inmates so the dishes can be washed in time for the next meal.

"If an inmate has a medical reason that requires additional time to consume their meal, we take that into account, or if it's for a religious purpose, we accommodate those needs," Lampert said. "I think those issues are pretty well addressed through our policy, but I'll look and see what actual lawsuit alleges."

Horvath said Miller and Purdiman tried to resolve the issue by following the Department of Corrections grievance procedure. Negotiations stretching more than 18 months failed to bring a resolution, she said.

Purdiman is serving a six- to nine-year sentence for robbery, according to the prison's records department. Details on Miller's criminal record were not immediately available Thursday evening.