DOC sued for religious discrimination

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Department of Corrections (PNC file photo)

Incarcerated for the last 11 years, Dominick Lamar Felder has nine more years to spend at the Department of Correction (DOC) in Mangilao, where he claims his religious rights were violated.

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In a lawsuit filed against DOC, Felder alleges that on April 4, 2019 , he was told by the visitation officer identified as Officer Mesa that he would no longer be allowed to have his hair braided by his wife as a religious practice. The directive came from Officer Mesa’s supervisors. Up until this point Felder had practiced the activity in prison.

“I am an African-American Muslim man who has been actively practicing my faith before incarceration and throughout my 11 years at the Department of Corrections. Since Feb 12, 2008 and even before incarceration I have been having my hair braided by my wife as a religious practice guided by Muslim Hadiths and practices passed to me through a lifetime of worship and expression of faith,” stated Felder in the complaint.

“A Hadith is defined as a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad, with accounts of his daily practice (the Sunna), which constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran.” Felder explains further: “Braided hair has been a sacred practice of mine since a young adult. It is sacred to me because it allows me very few opportunities to worship Allah in my physical and spiritual being.“

He says that for 19 days, DOC prohibited him from having his hair braided as part of a religious activity “under threat of punishment.”

On April 23, 2019, the complaint states that a memorandum for compliance was issued allowing Felder to have his hair braided but it could not be done by his wife.

In the memorandum, Major Antone Aguon wrote, “You are advised that visitation is a time of visit and not grooming. Therefore the restriction of braiding your hair during visitation will continue to be enforced. All prisoners are advised to be properly dressed and groomed prior to visitation.”

Felder says this violates his rights, arguing: “In addition, the process of my wife braiding my hair is considered one of the ways I’m able to honor the practice. As the prophet has repeatedly stated that those who have hair should honor it, and those entrusted with his hair were only his trusted companions. However, the defendants listed in this complaint are preventing me from observing this religious practice under RLUIPA because they stopped me from practicing this religious activity since April 2019, continue to block the only means (wife) I have available to carry out this process, and without providing the least restrictive means of doing so.”

He likens having his wife braid his hair to the practice of praying before a meal. Felder claims that he and his family have been targeted and discriminated against by DOC.

“I’ve always submit to searches or inspections and have not been identified as one who smuggles contraband into prison. Yet, the Department of Corrections officials have targeted me and my family during visitation. Upon information and belief, I was told by officers that I was placed on a close watch list during visitation. Unlike other families, my wife and I are often assigned seating so that we can be watched closely. This is clearly discriminatory and has been the essence of this constant struggle to receive equitable treatment under the law,” stated Felder.

The complaint points to other possible allegations of rights violations. Felder in his request for relief indicates that he does not have an actual place to pray and carries out this act in the communal bathroom, near the commode in his cell, or in open cube.

He goes on further to indicate that he is also hindered in practicing religious activities such as Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Jumah, and Salah.

While DOC has yet to file a response to the complaint as it was filed Friday, Sept. 27, 2019, Felder asserts that DOC’s basis for not allowing Felder’s wife to braid his hair is in reference to sanitation and respecting the rights of others.

Felder is asking the court for an order to ensure that DOC officials do not retaliate against him as well as ensuring his safety while incarcerated.

For damages, he is suing for $300,000. In addition, he is requesting $20,000 for compensatory and punitive damages from the following defendants in their individual capacity: Samantha Brennan, Allen Borja, Antone Aguon, Mae Quitugua, and Cathy Cruz.

Felder is also asking $10,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Marceline Maratita in her individual capacity.

“I am requesting a jury criminal trial on all triable issues. I am requesting recovery of any costs involved in this suit. I am requesting the assistance of a lawyer to help me properly represent myself in this suit. I am requesting any additional relief this court believes is just, proper, and equitable,” stated Felder.

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Jolene Toves
Jolene joined the PNC team in 2017, as a producer, co-anchor and investigative reporter covering law enforcement, courts and crimes. Notable coverage includes the Ehlert case, the Mark Torre Jr. trial, the Allan Agababa trial, exclusive pieces on the Life of a Drug Dealer/Addict, and Life behind bars...the story of Honofre Chargualaf and Kevin Cruz. In 2019, she was promoted to Assistant News Director and Lead Anchor. From 2015 to 2017 she served as Public Relations and Promotions Manager, for the Hotel Nikko Guam handling local radio and advertorial promotions, as well as produced and directed tv commercials for the hotel. Prior to this she worked with KUAM for three years as a reporter and segment host. She began her journalism career in 2012, working with Glimpses of Guam contributing to the Guam Business Magazine, R&R magazine, MDM magazine and the Marianas Business Journal.