BONNE TERRE, Mo. – Muslim men who were praying together in their housing unit at a Missouri prison were doused with pepper spray, physically assaulted by corrections officers, and then retaliated against when they complained, according to a lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday by the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Missouri and the CAIR Legal Fund against Missouri Department of Corrections officials and several employees of the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne, Terre, Missouri.
“This lawsuit is about holding state officials to account and upholding the rights of all citizens,” Kimberly Noe-Lehenbauer, a CAIR civil rights attorney, said in a news release. “Once a person enters a correctional facility, they do not lose their most basic rights and become an open target for violence and abuse.”
The corrections department did not immediately return a request seeking comment on Friday.
The lawsuit alleges that Muslim men had been allowed to pray together many times in their housing unit at the prison after their chapel was locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Feb. 28, 2021, as nine Muslim men were praying, a corrections officer abruptly told them to stop, although the men had prayed together three times previously that day, according to the lawsuit. Up to 20 officers responded to the scene.
Two of the men stopped praying and stepped away. Two others also stopped praying but were put in handcuffs. Five of the men were doused with pepper spray, some while they were handcuffed, and one prisoner was beaten, according to the lawsuit.
Seven of the men were taken to segregation, where they were not provided with different clothes, heat or beds. They were not provided with medical evaluations, eye wash, showers, cleaning supplies or medical advice, the lawsuit says.
The men were initially charged with a major conduct violation for “acts of organized disobedience” by three or more offenders. That was later reduced to a minor conduct violation. They were found guilty and released from segregation on March 10, 2021.
The lawsuit alleges that some of the men were transferred to other prisons without cause, while others were continually subjected to physical abuse and humiliations or were retaliated against after they filed complaints.
The defendants are accused of violating the inmates’ constitutional rights, including the right to freely practice their religion, to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment and to be protected from discrimination based on their race.
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial and asking that the court award appropriate damages.