BONNE TERRE, Mo. — At a Missouri Department of Corrections facility in Bonne Terre, nine inmates stood shoulder to shoulder, preparing to kneel, prostrate, and praise God — an act of worship they’ve done hundreds of times before.
After having prepared for the prayer service by ceremoniously washing, an obligatory step for Muslims before praying, the men lined up in the housing unit, facing east as best as they could, and began praying — not unlike any other time they met for one of the five daily prayers.
According to a lawsuit filed last week, a prison guard ordered the men to stop praying immediately, and two of the nine men abruptly stopped their prayers and stepped away. The other seven did not.
Unlike many Americans who may be accustomed to stopping midway through a prayer, Muslims are encouraged to complete a prayer once it has begun. That’s perhaps why the other seven men praying tried to finish quickly.
According to the lawsuit, the inmates adhere to Islamic teachings regarding prayer, praying Islam’s five daily prayers, each lasting as little as a few minutes.
Five of the seven men who continued to pray were pepper sprayed and one was viciously beaten for nothing more than praying, according to the lawsuit.
Those are the allegations of a lawsuit filed against officials with the Missouri Department of Corrections on behalf of the inmates who were at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.
“Viewing Muslims as nothing more than a gang, more than a dozen guards participated in this violent episode,” the lawsuit said. “The brutality began as an effort to disrupt Muslims praying together but morphed into a protracted effort to punish those who prayed—dispersing Plaintiffs throughout the state via transfers and otherwise retaliating against them.”
According to the lawsuit, video cameras at the facility captured everything that happened. Lt. Michelle Basham was the shift commander on duty at ERDCC.
“Defendant Basham saw the men making preparations to pray as she made her rounds through the unit, but she walked on as ERDCC guards had done hundreds of times before,” the lawsuit said. “The Plaintiffs took her approval for granted, as they had prayed together in the housing unit’s common space several times each day since the prison locked down their chapel in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and, indeed, had prayed together three separate times earlier that very day.”
Shortly after the men began praying together, the prison guard shift commander ordered them to stop, saying: “Stop praying now. There’s no praying outside the chapel.”
“Attempting to quickly complete the prayer, as his sincerely held religious beliefs required him to do, Plaintiff Stafford sped up the prayer in an effort to resolve Defendant Basham’s concern. Other Plaintiffs followed,” the lawsuit said. “When Plaintiffs did not instantly cease their prayer, Defendant Basham flew into a rage, shouting an officer in distress call—code 10-5—and a directive to “get me 10 beds ready in 2 House” (one of the housing units used for segregated custody) into her radio. Code 10-5 is typically reserved for guards who are being assaulted or otherwise attacked by a group of incarcerees.”
Moments later, up to 20 additional guards responded. Several guards sprayed pepper spray onto the seven remaining men in prayer.
The lawsuit said, Sgt. Carl Hart — a prison guard who told Muslim prisoners he had PTSD from having been “trained to kill Muslims in Afghanistan,” — told officers to use violence and mace to stop the men from praying.
One inmate was kneeling with eyes closed trying to finish his prayer was picked up and slammed into the wall, the lawsuit alleges. Other inmates were also slammed into walls and doors as they were taken to the medical bay, where inmate names and numbers were taken.
The inmates were denied any medical evaluation or treatment.
The corrections department did not immediately return a request seeking comment from the Associated Press on Friday.
Praying without shoes as required by their faith, the inmates were barefoot or in socks when they were forced to walk through snow and mud instead of allowing them to follow the paved sidewalk.
Some of the inmates were forcibly stripped down to their underwear according to the lawsuit. One inmate was allowed to take off his own clothes. Two inmates were allowed to keep wearing their pepper-spray-saturated clothes.
The inmates were told they had each been charged with a disciplinary infraction for “acts of organized disobedience” by three or more offenders, a major conduct violation usually reserved for riot organizers.
Those charges would eventually be reduced after each of the inmates involved was called into a cursory hearing.
Two days after the incident, ERDCC Deputy Warden Matt Raymond spoke to more than 70 Muslim inmates to address the violent incident.
“[Rayomnd] confirmed that the guards’ actions were wrong and claimed that the guards would be punished,” the lawsuit said.