Muslim and Jewish groups are praising a new policy by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office that lets inmates wear religious head coverings in jail.
Inmates can wear a jail-issued hijab, the Muslim headscarf, or other religious headwear as long as there's no threat to safety and security, Sheriff Rich Stanek said Thursday. The jail also will issue yarmulkes and kufi hats.
The sheriff's office said it previously considered inmate requests for religious head covering on a case-by-case basis.
The new policy, "addresses the most fundamental issue of civil rights," Fartun Weli, a Somali public health advocate who serves on the sheriff's community advisory board, told reporters.
"The scarf is part of our identity. Not being able to wear it, especially when you're in jail and having a lot of issues, is really bad," Weli said. "This will help."
Weli and other supporters say it addresses a fundamental issue of civil rights among Muslim women who choose to wear the scarf.
"It's a part of my identity," said Aisha Ali, a health outreach worker for the Oromo Community of Minnesota. "If I was asked to take it off, you'd be stripping me of my identity, and I'd be very offended."
Ali is originally from Australia, where Muslim female police officers for years have worn the hijab as part of their official uniform. St. Paul police recently tweaked its policies to allow female employees to do the same.
Only about a few dozen inmates at the Hennepin County jail wear religious head coverings, out of the 38,000 who are booked in a typical year.
Stanek, who is seeking a third term as sheriff this year, said the jail has accommodated individuals, but is now making the policy universal and not subject to the individual judgment of jail staff.
"As sheriff, I believe it's extremely important to enhance our policies to be proactive rather than reactive," he said. "We want to be sure that if someone enters our jail wearing a religious head covering, the sheriff's office that the sheriff's office is prepared to accommodate that individual under that pretense of dignity and respect."
But the change was, in part, prompted by a case that garnered the attention of the state's leading Muslim civil-rights group.
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations wrote a letter to Stanek in December after receiving a complaint from a Muslim woman who was incarcerated at the jail.
Lori Saroya, the group's executive director, said the woman was ordered to remove her hijab for the booking photo and was not allowed to wear the hijab while in jail.
"While she was in jail, she was given a T-shirt to wear over her head," Saroya said. "It was not a comfortable accommodation. It just wasn't working. We thought there just needed to be something else."
Stanek was quick to respond, Saroya added. With her group's help, his office crafted the most detailed jail policy on religious headwear in the state.
"The Hennepin County sheriff was extremely respectful of Muslim culture and was willing to understand and learn more," Saroya said.
Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, also applauded the policy move. "It's important for our increasingly diverse society to reconcile people's religious belief with the importance of maintaining security and decorum in a prison," he said. Before the policy was announced, Hunegs said he had not heard any complaints from Jewish inmates about the issue in Hennepin County.
Saroya's group has also been working with Ramsey County to adopt a similar policy at its detention center. A Ramsey county spokesman said a shipment of jail-issued hijabs just arrived and a new policy should be in place within days.
The issue of religious head coverings became a flashpoint in the federal trial of a Rochester woman who was convicted of supporting the terror group al-Shabab in Somalia. Amina Farah Ali said guards at the Sherburne County jail took away her hijab. She was later transferred to a new jail.