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Muslim Mom’s Prison Guard Claims Survive

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Muslim mother's civil rights complaint against guards at Salinas Valley State Prison will move forward after a federal judge denied their motion to dismiss.

Latifa Isakhanova, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Azerbaijan, sued William I. Muniz and six other prison guards after receiving rough treatment on a visit to her son in August 2103.

Before she visited, her son had '"signed two prison group grievances and two inmate group appeals challenging SVSP's interference with the religious practices of Muslim inmates,'" U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson wrote in his April 26, order, quoting from her second amended complaint.

In the midst of her visit, a guard took her son away and then arrested her, "purportedly because the guards suspected she had passed a 'bindle of chewing tobacco' to her son during the visit," Henderson wrote in his summary.

Prison guards then held her for "seven or eight hours," strip-searched her, searched her car and cellphone without a warrant, denied her access to her diabetes medicine and food and water, and made "offensive and derogatory comments" about her religion and national origin, such as "All Muslims are terrorists," and "America is no place for Muslims," Henderson wrote, again summarizing and quoting from Isakhanova's complaint.

The guards asked how many times a day she prayed, if she was Sunni or Shia, which mosque she went to, why she didn't cover herself, and when they finally released her "prison officials 'threatened [] that if she complained about her mistreatment, false arrest and unlawful searches, she would never see her son again.'" The prison also barred her from visiting her son for a year, and denied her appeals for nearly two years, "reinstating her visitation rights only after this lawsuit was filed," Henderson wrote in denying the defendants' motion to dismiss.

Isakhanova sued for unlawful search, violation of equal protection, violation of the right to familial association, and violation of the First Amendment rights to practice her faith and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The guards sought dismissal, claiming they did not know about the grievances that were filed, and that their questions did not constitute disapproval or hostility. Defendant Sgt. A Lopez, a supervisor, sought dismissal of the Fourth Amendment charges against him because he was not present.

Henderson, however, found that the questions could constitute hostility because defendants "offered no explanation of why their investigation into whether plaintiff passed her son tobacco had anything to do with her religious practices; without any such explanation, the 'reasonable inference' is that their questions and statements about her religion lacked a secular purpose."

Also, "statements such as, 'America is no place for Muslims,' foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion, because they run afoul of the prohibition against 'making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.'"

Henderson also found that Isakhanova's retaliation claim is valid because it is reasonable to believe that the guards knew of her son's grievances against the prison. And since Sgt. Lopez was in charge of the location, there was "sufficient casual connection" that he could be liable.

Isakhanova is represented by David Bake Newdorf and Ryan Murphy with Newdorf Legal in San Francisco. Neither responded immediately to requests for comment. Nor did the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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