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Indiana prison warden: Muslims can pray in pairs

Published: Thursday, June 27, 2013 2:09 p.m. CDT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The warden of a federal prison holding high-risk inmates including American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh insisted Thursday that he was obeying a court order to allow daily group prayer by permitting inmates to pray in pairs within their cells.

Warden John Oliver told a federal judge Thursday that when the prison in Terre Haute, Ind., allowed group prayer earlier this year, Muslim inmates formed gangs and bullied other prisoners.

Lindh attended the hearing in Indianapolis by video conference from the high-security unit that houses he and about 40 other inmates, including several convicted on terror charges. Lindh did not testify, but listened silently with his arms at his sides.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus Stinson ruled Jan. 11 that barring Lindh and his fellow Muslims from engaging in daily group prayer violates a 1993 law that bans the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest. Magnus Stinson issued an order demanding that the prison allow group prayer.

Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a motion in Lindh's name in April asking the judge to find the warden in contempt. The motion argued that Oliver wasn't meeting the requirements of the court order because he allowed only three group prayers per day in a single room, instead of the five that Lindh said his faith requires.

But Oliver said he believed he was fulfilling the order's mandates, while balancing inmates' religious rights with the security needs of the special unit that severely restricts inmates' communications with the outside world.

The prison converted a recreation room into a "meditation room" to accommodate group prayer in March, but Muslim inmates, who make up more than half of the 42 offenders in the unit, used the inmate-led prayers to set up a prison gang, Oliver said. Some Muslim inmates "shunned" others by banning them from the prayer group, controlled access to food, and claimed the room as their territory by leaving prayer rugs and other religious items there. Oliver said this intimidated inmates of other faiths and deterred them from using the room.

A group of Catholic inmates gave up trying to use the room, Oliver said. "They said it was the Muslim room," he testified.

In response to what Oliver called "gang activity," he changed the rules in May, barring use of the meditation room for group prayer and limiting prayer to two inmates per single cell, which he said was more secure.

Falk pointed out that group activities besides prayer were not restricted.

He said a sanction against the warden was not necessary, but that he needs to understand "that he has not yet complied with what this court has ordered."

Magnus Stinson said she will rule later on whether the prison has violated her order.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.

U.S. troops captured Lindh in Afghanistan in 2001. Lindh, who was raised Catholic, was accused of fighting for the Taliban to help them build a pure Islamic state. In 2002, he pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007. He is eligible for release in 2019.

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Follow Charles Wilson on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CharlesDWilson

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