An inmate at the Arkansas Department of Correction who alleged that prison officials withheld copies of a religious magazine from him and prohibited him from leading religious services failed to convince the Arkansas Supreme Court that his claims were valid.
Malik Muntaquim, 48, formerly known as Fred E. Phillips, filed a lawsuit against a number of individuals who work for the Arkansas Department of Correction, contending that they withheld several issues of The Final Call, a publication of the Nation of Islam, of which Muntaquim is a professed member.
He also alleged that prison officials would not permit him to lead NOI services.
Muntaquim is currently serving a 300-month sentence after being convicted as an habitual offender on charges of aggravated robbery, theft of property and breaking or entering in Pulaski County. He will be eligible to apply for parole in November 2022.
His lawsuit was first heard in Jefferson County Circuit Court, where Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis denied his motion for a prohibition against what Muntaquim said were violations of his rights. He appealed that ruling, and the Supreme Court sent the case back to Dennis to hold a hearing.
During that hearing, Muntaquim testified that he had regularly received copies of The Final Call since 2015 but said copies were withheld in earlier years while he was at a different prison unit. Prison officials also testified about weekly Islamic prayer services that were held at the prison and said that Muntaquim refused to attend them because of the presence of Orthodox Muslims.
After the hearing, Dennis issued a written order denying Muntaquim’s petition for an injunction, saying that he had failed to show that the department’s policies prohibiting publications that promote violence was causing him irreparable harm.
Writing for the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Shawn Womack said that while the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that prisoners retain rights under the First Amendment, those rights are limited because of their incarceration and valid penal objectives, such as deterrence of crime, rehabilitation of prisoners and security concerns.
He said that the law is clear in that prisons may withhold publications deemed to be “detrimental to the security, good order or discipline” of the facility or if it might facilitate criminal activity.
Womack also said there is no blanket policy on any publication; instead, each incoming publication is individually reviewed by mailroom staff. Any publication believed to contain language violating the policy will not be given to the inmate, who will be informed of the decision and may appeal to the warden of the unit. If that fails, the inmate may appeal to the publications committee.
Muntaquim was seeking to stop that policy and asked for access to any incoming NOI publication, regardless of its content. However, Dennis ruled that the policy was based on legitimate interests in the safety and welfare of all prisoners, prison officials and visitors. She also ruled that the same policy applies to all publications, not just those from NOI.
Copies of the publications he did not receive between 2013 and 2015 were determined to be a violation of policy because of language that suggested readers “rise up and strike out at their opponents.”
Regarding the religious services, Muntaquim wanted to halt a DOC policy that requires that they be overseen by an outside credential-led volunteer who represents the particular religious sect.
At the hearing, DOC personnel testified that they had sought outside NOI volunteers without success. During the hearing, the chaplain for the Department of Correction testified that the policy is designed to protect prison security and order by preventing the dissemination of material that could result in violence.
Womack wrote that Dennis’ decision to deny the motion was based on the legal precedent that prisons may reasonable restrict a prisoner’s activities to protect the legitimate interests of prison safety.