The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) houses prisoners of every faith imaginable: Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Episcopalian, Baptist, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Paganism, Voodooism, Satanism and many other beliefs. Not much different than you would find in any eclectically populated neighborhood out there in the free world.
Because religious freedom in America is protected by state and federal laws and the Constitution of the United States, some people from all over the world migrate to America to free themselves of the hate and prejudices they experienced while practicing their faith in other countries.
Just like many Americans in large and small cities and towns throughout this country, men and women who practice their beliefs behind prison walls have a right to do so without bias, prejudice or interference. Unfortunately, this was not the case for four Muslim prisoners serving out their sentences as firefighters at the Ben Lomond fire camp in the remote hills of Santa Cruz.
On August 18, 2010, during the sacred celebration of Ramadan, four Muslim prisoner firefighters—William Randle, Christopher Farley, Ronald Day and Daniel Thomas—were rounded up from their assigned duties by Ben Lomond camp commander Lieutenant L. Rodriguez and arbitrarily transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville in northern California, hundreds of miles further away from their families. Rodriquez’s unsubstantiated justification for removing every Muslim from the remote fire camp was, according to firefighter Day, because “camp Ben Lomond could not accommodate their religious dietary needs.”
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic (calendar) year observed as sacred with fasting practiced daily from dawn to sunset. Ramadan is one of the five principles of Allah according to the prophet Mohammed. The Solemnity of Ramadan has been practiced for decades behind prison walls.
The Ramadan observance at the Ben Lomond camp in 2010 had been in progress before Rodriguez assumed command, on or about August 10, without incident or problems. Rodriguez’s decision to truncate the celebration of this most sacred Islamic event with a falsely crafted excuse was “despicable, insulting and a slap in the face” to the prisoner firefighters explained Thomas. “This was blatant retaliation against us [Muslims] because of our religious beliefs.”
Prior to Rodriguez’s arrival at the Ben Lomond camp, the four Muslims were receiving adequate victuals meeting all their needs to fulfill their obligations on this Ramadan observance. There were no issues. Even if there had been some difficulty receiving proper religious sustenance, the four Muslims offered that they could make due (balance out their dietary needs) by supplementing their meals with purchases from the campus canteen (the prisoners’ store) out of their own pockets. They also explained to Rodriguez that food items they receive (and pay for) in institutionally approved packages could also serve to supplement their meals.
Rodriguez ignored this information and disrupted the rehabilitation programs of these four men who volunteered to put their lives on the line, fighting fires in communities all over the state when called on to do so. For their good work and effort to change their lives for the better, these four men were punished instead of praised, transferred back behind the walls of a state penitentiary. According to Randle, “This was an egregiously tyrannical exercise of power, prejudice and absolute abuse of authority by Rodriguez to intentionally disrupt our celebration of Ramadan.”
According to Farley, Rodriguez is the defendant in a complaint for similar action in another incident regarding the rights of a Muslim prisoner previously in his charge at another facility. While feeding prisoner firefighters in a restaurant (a standard procedure for prisoners who fight fires in the community), Rodriguez commented that “we’re not going to cater to the black Muslims,” this, according to prisoner Farley.
This comment was blurted to an African-American Muslim prisoner supposedly in the presence of the restaurant’s owner and/or daughter, who commented on Rodriguez’s remarks, said Farley. The prisoner filed a complaint on Rodriguez whose
arrogance and ineptitude was insulting and uncalled for.
The behavior and actions by Rodriguez, Ben Lomond’s camp commander, violates not only the constitutionally protected First Amendment rights of the Ben Lomond four but also their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is a federal law that protects the religious rights of all prisoners.
The Ben Lomond four have filed a class action suit Rodriguez’s actions seeking internal relief from the CDCR. If they are not satisfied with the CDCR’s response to their complaint, these four firefighters intend to file a formal complaint in a federal court and seek “declaratory and injunctive” relief plus monetary damages against Rodriguez and the CDCR. Despite the impudence by this camp commander, firefighters Randle, Farley, Day and Thomas were able to regroup and complete their celebration of Ramadan at CCC and Susanville.