Virginia’s prison system must recognize an offshoot of the Nation of Islam as a religion and allow inmates who are followers to congregate and possess its publications, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The Virginia Department of Corrections has long considered the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percenters, to be a “security threat group,” which means inmates have not been allowed to hold gatherings or have access to its sacred texts.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled the policy violates inmates’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion and ordered Virginia to treat the group like all other beliefs behind bars. She said the department failed to prove that Nation of Gods and Earths is a “violent, racially supremacist gang.”
“After twenty-one years of tracking Five Percenters, the (Virginia Department of Corrections) has not produced sufficient evidence supporting its position that the gang designation is warranted and furthers a compelling state interest,” Brinkema wrote.
Michael Williams, an attorney for the inmate who brought the case, called the decision a “total victory” and said he hopes the Department of Corrections will move quickly to accommodate the inmates.
“The ruling should serve as a reminder that the Constitution’s free-exercise rights are equally as important when asserted by those in prison,” Williams said in an email. “Now the Commonwealth of Virginia must put an end to its unlawful and discriminatory policies.”
A department spokeswoman said in an email that she was not immediately able to comment on the decision.
The Nation of Gods and Earths, started in the 1960s by a former member of the Nation of Islam, teaches that black man is God and that only 5 percent of the population knows and teaches the truth. They believe that 10 percent promote the idea of the “mystery God” to keep the remaining 85 percent living in ignorance.
Fifteen state prison systems already recognize the group as a religion, largely because of inmate lawsuits.
The managing editor of the Five Percenter Newspaper, Born King Allah, said it is hurtful to see inmates who follow the religion’s “God-centered culture” being “smeared and discredited” as a prison gang.
“All we wanted to do is just be free to live and honor God from our perspective but America said ‘no,'” said Born King Allah, who has advocated for inmates in many of the legal cases. “This is why we find ourselves in courtrooms all over America now.”
In an effort to settle the inmate’s lawsuit, Virginia officials had offered to create a “dedicated housing unit” in Wallens Ridge State Prison where offenders who identify as Five Percenters could request to be transferred. In the housing unit, the department said the Five Percenters would be able to congregate and possess their literature.
But the inmate rejected that offer, calling it a “joke” during last month’s trial in Alexandria.
“Why should all the Gods be put in that place and restricted while Christianity, Asatruism, and all the other religions that are allowed to operate within VDOC, they everywhere? Why should we be restricted?” Kalvin Donnell Coward said, according to the trial transcript.
Virginia prison officials maintained that the Nation is a “racial supremist hate group” that promotes violence behind bars. A federal judge sided with the Virginia Department of Corrections in a similar case in 2014, finding the state’s Nation of Gods and Earths policy to be the “least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest in prison safety.” That ruling was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.