Inmates at the Hennepin County jail will be allowed to wear religious head coverings, the Sheriff’s Office said Thursday, making it the first law enforcement agency in Minnesota to adopt such a policy.
Just a few hours after Sheriff Rich Stanek announced the change, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office said it will roll out a similar policy this week.
The new policies were warmly welcomed by representatives of religious and cultural groups.
“This addresses the most fundamental of civil rights,” said Fartun Weli, executive director of Isuroon, a Somali women’s advocacy group. “It’s part of our identity.”
The trauma of an arrest can move a suspect to “seek spiritual relief, but they also have to deal with the shame of not being able to wear a head covering,” Weli said. “This is a big deal to us, but we aren’t saying somebody should receive special treatment because of their religion.”
Although both sheriff’s offices had been considering the changes for nearly a year, a compelling letter from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to Stanek last fall drove home the importance of allowing religious garb in jail, the sheriff said.
In Hennepin County, at least a couple of dozen inmates each year will be affected. When individuals wearing a head covering such as yarmulke, hijab or kufi are booked into jail, they will be taken to a private area where the clothing item will be searched and inventoried. For security reasons, the jail then will provide a replacement.
Procedures are also in place for inmates who didn’t arrive wearing a religious head covering, but want to request one.
One caveat: An inmate can receive a head covering only if he or she isn’t deemed a safety or security threat, Stanek said. If the covering is altered or used for anything other than its intended purpose, it will be taken away.
The new policy also includes booking photos. In Hennepin County, a female inmate wearing a hijab will be allowed to keep it on, but push it back off her face for the photo. In Ramsey County, a nonpublic photo without the covering will be taken for police use and another photo with the covering will be available for public use.
The policy’s genesis
The new policy, which adheres to the constitutional and federal requirements of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, followed discussions with CAIR and experts on religion and corrections, Stanek said. His office also reviewed similar policies in California and Illinois.
Before the new policy, the Sheriff’s Office considered head covering requests from inmates case-by-case. The jail currently accommodates inmates with specific religious needs such as adhering to dietary requirements, providing religious literature and organizing religious leaders from a variety of faiths who volunteer in the jail.
Each year, more than 38,000 people are booked into Hennepin County jail and 20,000 into the Ramsey County facility. Inmates usually are struggling with a variety of issues when they land in jail, and not being able to wear a head covering can add to their problems, Weli said.
Weli has seen a jail-issued hijab, which is dark brown and made with a stretchy material. She said she was pleased with it, and that it compared well to one she might buy at a local Somali shopping mall.
Lori Saroya, executive director of CAIR, agreed, then joked she was glad they weren’t the bright orange color typically associated with jail attire.
An influential letter
Saroya said her office has heard complaints of insensitivity over head coverings at jails throughout the state.
In August 2013, a religious Muslim woman was ordered to remove her hijab and given two T-shirts to cover her head and arms, Saroya said.
The letter CAIR sent to Stanek in December detailed that incident and compared making the religious woman remove her scarf to asking a woman to take off her shirt.
“The hijab is not an accessory. Muslim women who wear the hijab sincerely believe it is a religious obligation,” the letter stated.
The letter also discussed federal and state discrimination laws, head-covering policies in other states and recommendations for the Hennepin County jail. Saroya hopes other counties will follow the lead of Hennepin and Ramsey.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, also hailed the change. “We appreciate the difficulty in balancing a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs and practices with the need to maintain security and decorum at the [jail],” he said.
The new policy is an opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive, Stanek said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465