DOC Agrees to Pastoral Counseling for Death Row Inmate

Wilmington, DE (March 8, 2012) —The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (ACLU-DE) and the State of Delaware Department of Correction (DOC) have settled a case brought on behalf of death row inmate David Stevenson. Stevenson, a practicing Muslim since 1995, began petitioning for pastoral visits from a Sunni Salafi Muslim imam in May of 2010. The chaplain of the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center (“Vaughn”), Frank Pennell, denied his request and suggested that Stevenson use one of his “regular” weekly visits to obtain religious counseling.

Stevenson submitted a grievance of that denial, contending that it resulted in him, as a Muslim, being treated less favorably than Protestant and Catholic inmates. DOC denied his grievance as well. The imam who was available to provide counseling took a separate appeal and that, too, was denied.

Inmates of other faiths who receive visits from clergy members who are approved or employed by Vaughn are not required to expend a regular visit to receive pastoral counseling. Doing so entails a number of drawbacks. When a clergy visit is scheduled as a regular visit, it counts against the one visit a week Stevenson is allowed from family members and others. Regular visitors, even if they are clergy members, are banned from bringing religious texts into the prison, are separated from the inmate by a glass wall, and the visit is conducted in the general visiting area without the privacy afforded to a clergy visit.

Imam Ismaa’eel Hackett, a Sunni Salafi Muslim imam, was the only imam of the Sunni Salafi sect available to provide counseling to Stevenson. However, the DOC refused Hackett’s request for volunteer clergy status and prevented him from making pastoral visits to Vaughn. The settlement agreement grants Hackett volunteer clergy status with respect to Stevenson and allows Stevenson access to pastoral counseling from Hackett on terms equivalent to those enjoyed by other inmates.

“David Stevenson’s right to exercise his religious beliefs cannot be curtailed by the Department of Correction unless it has a compelling governmental interest and cannot find a less restrictive means of furthering that interest,” said Richard H. Morse, ACLU-DE legal director. “We are pleased that the department finally agreed to allow Imam Hackett to counsel Mr. Stevenson, even if it refused permission until it received our suit papers. He was denied this opportunity for far too long.”

Read the Wilmington News Journal summary here.

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