Woman, forced to remove hijab during visit, sues prison

By Kevin Murphy
Correspondent for The Capital Times
May 26, 2005

Cynthia Rhouni speaks Wednesday about her experience of being ordered to remove her scarf, or Hijab, to enter a maximum-security prison. Rhouni has filed a federal lawsuit against Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin. (AP Photo)

A Muslim woman who was forced to remove her headscarf in order to visit her ex-husband at the Columbia Correctional Institution claims the prison's policy violates her right to practice her religion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday. The complaint alleged:

Cynthia D. Rhouni of Madison was visiting Michael Gibson in February 2003 with her son when a guard at the gatehouse said she would need to remove her headscarf, or hijab. After passing through a metal detector, Rhouni was told that new prison policy prohibited visitors from wearing head coverings in the visiting room for any reason.

Rhouni said she wears the hijab for religious reasons and requested that a female guard remove or inspect it, but was told that wasn't possible. Because her son was struggling in school and needed to visit with his father, Rhouni agreed to remove her hijab in front of the male guard.

"She said she felt naked, humiliated and embarrassed as traditional Muslim women keep their heads covered when men are present," said Rhouni's attorney, David Lasker. "I don't know if it's in the Quran or not, but it's deeply embedded in the religion and culture of Islam."

Seeing his ex-wife in the crowded visiting room without her hijab also upset Gibson and put a strain on the visit, Lasker said. She couldn't wear it during a second visit, and the humiliation caused her to end subsequent visits, Lasker said.

The hijab clings to Rhouni's head and doesn't conceal anything but her hair, Lasker said.

Although courts have given prisons wide discretion against individual privacy in order to maintain security, the Columbia institution's policy went well beyond security concerns, Lasker said.

"One sees Catholic nuns visiting prisoners, and as far as we know that issue of the headscarf isn't raised with them," he said.

Courts have also ruled that when establishing security regulations, prisons must minimize adverse impacts on a visitor's religious expression, Lasker said.

John Dipko, Department of Corrections spokesman, had no comment on the lawsuit's allegations or DOC policy on visitor dress.

Lasker said that in May 2003, then-warden Phil Kingston defended the prison's practice and cited visitation management provisions of the state's administration code prohibiting visitor behavior that would threaten security. Lasker said he didn't see any justification in the code for the headscarf policy.

Lasker also said Kingston explained that the prison didn't have a female officer available for such inspections because it would require the prison to hire guards on the basis of their gender, which is unlawful employment practice. Lasker called Kingston's explanation "cute and absurd."

The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and a court order banning the policy of requiring Islamic women to remove their headscarves during visits.