Guard called Muslim headscarf a ‘rag,’ Kansas prison discriminates, rights group says

Leavenworth Detention Center
Leavenworth Detention Center File photo The Associated Press

A civil rights group said Wednesday that a Muslim woman is facing religious discrimination at a privately-run prison in Leavenworth.

The prisoner, Valeriece Ealom, has complained that staff at the Leavenworth Detention Center have repeatedly disparaged her wearing of a headscarf, calling it a “rag” and have ordered her to take it off before being allowed to leave her cell.

Muslim Advocates, a civil rights and legal advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said in a letter made public Wednesday that it was concerned about Ealom’s treatment.

The letter was addressed to CoreCivic, the Tennessee-based company that operates the prison, and the U.S. Marshals Service, which contracts with CoreCivic to house federal prisoners.

“While LDC’s management has been aware of her mistreatment, they have failed to take any meaningful corrective action and USMS has likewise permitted this harassment to continue for months,” the letter said.

Leavenworth Detention Center has faced many complaints in recent years. The prison is the focus of ongoing legal action over the taping of phone calls between prisoners and their lawyers. A Justice Department audit last year blasted the prison for understaffing, security problems and deceptive practices. Prison officials have been accused of retaliating against employees who complain.

Ealom, 49, has been held at the facility since last November after federal prosecutors moved to revoke her parole in a drug case.

“Like many Muslim women, Ms. Ealom believes it is her fundamental obligation to practice modesty by wearing a headscarf,” the letter said.

A prison chaplain provided Ealom with a headscarf to wear. But when other employees allegedly harassed Ealom about wearing it and threatened to discipline her if she did not take it off, Ealom filed a formal complaint.

That only made the harassment worse, the letter says.

In January, Ealom alleges, she was told she would be put in solitary confinement if she did not remove the scarf before leaving her cell.

As a result, she missed receiving her prescribed medication that day.

When Ealom complained about that, one officer confiscated her scarf as “contraband,” the letter says.

Other times, a guard has interrupted her prayers to conduct searches of her cell.

In February, acting without a lawyer, Ealom filed a federal civil lawsuit over her treatment.

A judge dismissed the suit in June, saying that it did not provide enough information to show how she had been harmed.

In Wednesday’s letter, Muslim Advocates says that CoreCivic and the Marshals Service must immediately take steps to remedy the situation, which it argues is a violation of federal law.

“Despite being aware of the officers’ bigoted and discriminatory conduct, LDC’s management has not taken any meaningful steps to address the situation,” the letter said.

In response to the letter, CoreCivic released the following statement:

“CoreCivic cares deeply about every person in our care, and we work hard to ensure those in our facility are treated respectfully and humanely. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and cultural and ethnic sensitivity education is part of every employee’s training.

There is a robust grievance process available to all inmates at Leavenworth that provides multiple avenues for concerns to be raised, including toll-free telephone numbers. All inmates also have access to management staff.

Ms. Ealom has availed herself of those mechanisms on several occasions, and the facility has responded and continues to respond appropriately. Both the facility Chaplain and Warden have provided assistance to Ms. Ealom with regard to her religious head gear, and will continue to address any concerns she raises promptly.

All of our detention facilities, including Leavenworth, are monitored very closely by the government, and each and every one is required to undergo regular review and audit processes that include ensuring an appropriate standard of living for all inmates.”

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