Until two weeks ago, Intelligent Tarref Allah, a 27-year-old Brooklyn native convicted of murder in 1995, was just a gang member in prison asking for special treatment.
For years, New York State prison officials would not allow Mr. Allah — who is known to inmates and guards by his new legal first name, Intelligent, or Intel — to openly practice what he describes as his religion, central tenets of which encourage self-analysis, meditation and a black supremacist message.
Mr. Allah is a Five Percenter, part of a black militant group that broke from the Nation of Islam in the 1960′s. The New York State prison system has long regarded it as a violence-prone gang, much as the system also regards the Latin Kings, Crips or the Aryan Brotherhood. The name derives from the concept that only 5 percent of the world’s people break free from the worship of a false “mystery God” and become gods to themselves and their families.
But on July 31, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of Federal District Court in Manhattan ruled that Mr. Allah is entitled to the same religious freedoms as the thousands of practicing Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hare Krishnas and Wiccans incarcerated in New York State’s prisons.
In the universe of prisoners’ rights, the ruling was groundbreaking because it would force state prison officials to allow Five Percenters, whom observers see as an extremist group, to have access to the literature and carry out the rituals of what they say is their religion, the Nation of Gods and Earths.
Judge Buchwald also ordered state prison officials to report back to her within 60 days on their progress in accommodating Five Percenter requests for monthly “parliament” meetings; special prison dinner menus and post-sundown cafeteria schedules during periods of fasting; and special celebrations during Five Percenter holy days, including the birthdays of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam founder, and Clarence 13X Smith, the founder of the Nation of Gods and Earths.
“They have to accommodate all of their practices, and if they can’t accommodate them, they have to show a compelling reason why they shouldn’t,” said Damore Viola, a lawyer with Sullivan & Cromwell, the prestigious Manhattan law firm that represented Mr. Allah in his lawsuit.
The spokesman for the New York State Division of Correctional Services, James B. Flateau, said on Friday that the department would have no comment on the ruling until the state attorney general’s office, which defended the department in the suit, decides whether to appeal it.
Many state prison systems classify Five Percenters as gang members. Judge Buchwald’s decision, though it does not compel other states to comply, could prompt inmates elsewhere to file similar civil rights lawsuits.
“This opinion will encourage others to make claims,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Texas Law School who specializes in religious freedom cases. But, he added, rulings in lawsuits filed by prisoners can vary widely, and one district court judge’s decision does not always influence another judge presiding over a case involving different circumstances.
“Most of these guys are not going to find lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell,” Professor Laycock said of other Five Percenters who might want to follow Mr. Allah’s lead into the federal courts. “And the case’s persuasive value is limited.”
In many states, prison officials track “security threat groups,” as jailed members of a handful of gangs and supremacist organizations are commonly called. Five Percenters have challenged prison restrictions in other states with little success. In 1999, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that South Carolina’s prison system was justified in treating Five Percenters as dangerous gang members. Last year, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld disciplinary rules in New Jersey that punish any prisoners possessing The Five Percenter, a Nation of Gods and Earths newspaper, or even discussing aspects of their beliefs.
Last year, a New Jersey state court ruled that state prison officials were justified in punishing several inmates caught standing in a circle, their hands clasped behind their backs, discussing the tenets of the Nation of Gods and Earths, according to the New Jersey Law Journal.
Courts have been reluctant over the years to force state prison officials to rethink disciplinary regulations, legal experts said. Mr. Allah’s recent victory in New York and the failure of the Five Percenter lawsuits in New Jersey and South Carolina may not reflect a changing judicial ethos as much a weak legal defense of why similar regulations were necessary in New York’s state prisons, Professor Laycock said.
“New York didn’t put in much evidence that these guys were doing anything bad,” he said in a telephone interview on Friday. In the lawsuits in South Carolina and New Jersey, defense lawyers produced evidence of Five Percenters attacking correction officers and fighting with other inmates. “If, in another state, the prison system put together a long list of violent acts committed by members of this group,” Professor Laycock added, “it’s easy for that judge to say, `If they’re out there hurting people, I don’t care if they’re a religion or not.’ “
What makes Five Percenter lawsuits more complex, Judge Buchwald noted in her 22-page ruling, is that members deny that their beliefs are a religion, rather a way of life.
Mr. Allah, born Rashaad Marria, is serving 19 years to life for killing a man who had testified against him in a murder trial in which he was later acquitted. He said the ruling had given him renewed hope for his remaining time in prison.
“I expect a sense of nationhood will come out of this decision, as opposed to just me living as an individual having knowledge of self,” Mr. Allah said from his cell at Eastern Correctional Facility, in Ulster County, responding through his lawyer, Ms. Viola, to written questions.
“I feel like a cloak of anonymity has been removed,” Mr. Allah went on, “and the D.O.C.S. officers and officials will be able to see that inmates that they think are upright are actually members of the Nation and this will change their perception of the Nation.”