King County Jail officials no longer will take away the religious head coverings of inmates booked into county jails and also will allow them to wear their hijabs and headscarves to court.
The change, which took effect last month, is part of a policy revision the county Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention worked out over the last year with a local Muslim advocacy group.
It follows a 2011 incident in which a Muslim woman said she had to relinquish her head covering when she was booked into jail and was taken to court the next day without it — all in contravention of her religious beliefs.
She also complained that she was patted down by a male officer, even though a female officer was present. The initial charges against the woman of making false statements to police were later dropped.
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Accommodating the religious practices of inmates has long been an area of complication for jail and prison officials. It has become even more sensitive since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as lawsuits have been filed and volumes of guidelines written.
Jennifer Gist, civil-rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the woman, new to Seattle at the time and not proficient in English, was humiliated by the experience.
Gist compares it to asking someone to strip to their underwear in the presence of a stranger of the opposite sex. She pointed out that the county later sent a strongly worded letter of apology to the woman.
Gist said CAIR wanted the policy written broadly enough that people of other religions could benefit from it. The group will use King County’s revisions as a model in working with other jurisdictions across the state, she said.
William Hayes, spokesman for King County jails, said the previous policy required officials to confiscate all inmate personal belongings — including any headwear — before booking them in jail. Their personal clothing is then replaced with jail jumpsuits.
“We like to think we’re somewhat proactive in dealing with these kinds of cases,” he said. “Part of it is educating ourselves, too. We didn’t understand the impact of taking this (headscarf) away from her.”
While the safety and security of both inmates and personnel take priority, he said, “We are not here to interfere with people’s choice of religious practice.”
Hayes said while he’s not aware of any past complaints about the county’s practice by Muslim women, the county in the past has accommodated other requests for religious tolerance — by orthodox Jews and Sikhs.
Sikhs, for example, must carry a small 6-inch dagger on their body at all times as part of their religious adherence. Most carry the knife inserted in their turban-covered hair.
It’s unclear why use of the scarves was restricted.
Asked if there was a concern that inmates could use a scarf to harm themselves or another inmate, Hayes said “we provide two sheets to every inmate. If we were concerned about something like that, we wouldn’t hand out sheets.”
Under the revised policy:
Female inmates will go through the electronic screening process without having to remove their headscarves, which will later be searched by a female officer in a private dressing area.
Female visitors will not be required to remove their head covering during screening or pat-down but will be directed to a private area where such a search will be conducted by a female officer. If the visitor refuses the search or fails the screening, she will be denied access.
County jails will keep a supply of scarves to provide to inmates whose personal scarf may not have passed screening or didn’t meet size restrictions.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.