Northwest State Correctional Facility. Photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

A Muslim inmate suing the state Department of Corrections claiming that prison food does not meet his religious dietery needs has lost his latest round in court seeking to make his case a class action.

Federal Magistrate Judge John Conroy issued a recent ruling finding prisoner Justin Russell has not met his legal burden to add other Muslim inmates to his lawsuit. 

Russell, through his attorney, had submitted affidavits signed by six other inmates saying they would like to be added to the case, and had said that there are many others inmates seeking to join the lawsuit.

But, Conroy wrote in his recent ruling, that isn’t enough to make a case a class action. 

Conroy wrote that deciding if the meals offered by DOC violate a prisoners right to the free exercise of religion requires a determination of whether each person consider the meals “to be in conflict with their sincerely held religious dietary” beliefs. 

“In a case like this,” Conroy wrote, “where determining class membership relies on a subjective criterion and requires a mini-hearing on the merits of each case, the Court cannot find that the class is ascertainable.”

Conroy also ruled that Russell’s assertion that at least 85 fellow Muslim inmates have told him that they “reject” the corrections prepackaged meals becuase they are not halal is hearsay.

“The statement,” Conroy added, “is thus inadmissible and may not be used to support Russell’s claim of numerosity.” 

Conroy’s decision, termed a “Report and Recommendation,” follows a hearing in the case that took place in October in federal court in Burlington.

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The parties in the lawsuit have 14 days from when Conroy issued his report, which was Dec. 18, to file any objections. Those objections will then be forwarded to a federal judge to consider whether to formally adopt the findings in a ruling.

Justin Russell
Justin Russell.

Attorney David Bond, representing Russell, said Tuesday he disagreed with Conroy’s report.

“We’re going to be filing a written objection,” Bond added, declining further comment.

Assistant Attorney General David McLean, representing the DOC and the corrections officials named in the lawsuit, could not immediately be reached Tuesday for comment. 

Russell, in his civil rights lawsuit, alleges that corrections officials are violating his constitutional right stemming from a policy that provides Muslim inmates with prepackaged kosher meals instead of halal meals.

The legal case has been winding its way through the federal court since June 2015, surviving a series of motions by the state seeking to have it thrown out of court. 

“One of the fundamental tenets of Islam is the consumption of a Halal diet,” the lawsuit stated. “‘Halal’ simply means permissible according to the Quran. Food that is not Halal is ‘Haram,’ or forbidden.”

The Quran, the lawsuit stated, “absolutely” prohibits the consumption of pork, blood or alcohol, and all meat and meat byproducts must come from ritually slaughtered animals.

While kosher dietary restrictions are similar to halal, they are not the same, the lawsuit stated. 

“Alcohol may be permissible in certain forms to persons keeping Kosher. However it is never anything but Haram to Muslims,” according to the lawsuit. “Likewise, the slaughter of animals is performed according to different rituals, and by adherents of a different faith.”

Russell, as part of his lawsuit, is also seeking an injunction ordering the department to rollback to how halal meals were handled by DOC prior to late 2014 by preparing them on site using halal ingredients.

Russell is currently incarcerated at Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans.

According to the state’s online prisoner locator, Russell is held awaiting trial on an aggravated assault charge.

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