The Roanoke Times - July 24, 2005
Inmate says guards won't let him pray
An inmate's sister said a Wallens Ridge prison correctional
officer threatened to kill Muslims who kept praying
By Laurence Hammack
Ever since two high-security prisons opened in far Southwest Virginia, critics have complained of a culture clash between minority inmates from metropolitan areas and a predominantly white correctional staff drawn from the surrounding countryside.
For the most part, the tension has shown up in excessive-force complaints made by prisoners.
Lorenzo McLean's case is different.
McLean is a Muslim inmate who claims that correctional officers at Wallens Ridge State Prison are violating his right to pray in his cell.
The inmate says he has encountered problems with one particular correctional officer who recently returned from military duty in Iraq. The correctional officer has said he hates Muslims and has threatened to kill them if they did not stop praying, teaching Islam and congregating, according to McLean's sister, Tyana Arawole of Maryland.
"These allegations have been brought to our attention and are currently under investigation," Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said last week. "Because there is an investigation and because DOC employees are involved, we cannot comment further."
McLean, 27, is serving two life sentences on convictions of murder, robbery and malicious wounding in Norfolk.
"As a prisoner without much freedom, he should at least be able to pray if he so chooses," his sister wrote in an e-mail.
A spokeswoman with the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the organization has been contacted about the case.
"It's frequently the case that members of minority religions, including Muslims, experience discrimination or harassment in prison," said Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Virginia. However, Glenberg said she was not aware of any other cases in which a correctional officer's military experience in Iraq was alleged to have played a role in harassment of Muslim inmates.
Arawole said she is concerned about her brother's safety, based on reports of alleged inmate abuse at Wallens Ridge.
When it opened in 1999, Wallens Ridge was one of two supermax prisons built atop Wise County mountains. The goal at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion State Prison, which opened a year earlier, was to isolate the state's most dangerous inmates in top-security facilities that offered little in the way of treatment or rehabilitation.
Almost from the beginning, a large number of inmates complained of excessive force from guards armed with an array of weapons: shotguns that fired rubber pellets, stun guns that delivered 50,000-volt bursts of electricity, five-point restraints used to strap unruly inmates to beds for up to 72 hours at a time.
Lawyers for the ACLU's National Prison Project said a lawsuit they filed in 2001 over the harsh conditions was instrumental in the removal of 500 inmates from Connecticut, who had been transferred to Wallens Ridge because of prison overcrowding in their home state. Virginia also paid $350,000 to settle a second lawsuit brought by the family of a Connecticut inmate who died from heart failure after being shocked with a stun gun and strapped to his bed….