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SSgt Nathaniel Jackson: Ongoing Violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States


I am reaching out on behalf of the Council on American Islamic Relations Legal Defense Fund. We represent SSgt Nathaniel Jackson, who is presently incarcerated at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston.

For nearly one year, SSgt Jackson has endured violations of his statutory and constitutional rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment. SSgt Jackson converted to Islam while in confinement at the Naval Consolidated Brig Charleston on November 16, 2021. Since his conversion, he has attempted to exercise his religious beliefs as a Muslim, including, as relevant here, his sincerely-held religious belief that Islam commands him to maintain a beard.

SSgt Jackson has diligently attempted to obtain an exemption to the military’s grooming protocol—which requires incarcerees to remain clean-shaven—since his conversion. He first requested the appropriate paperwork in November 2021 and eventually received it from officials in December 2021. SSgt Jackson submitted his request for a waiver of policy to exercise his religion on January 7, 2022. In his waiver request, SSgt Jackson explained that he “did not shave [his] face while [he] was waiting for his request to be approved, as to not commit a sin [in] the eyes of Allah (S.W.T.).”

To this day, prison officials have not substantively acted on SSgt Jackson’s waiver request. (Procedurally, SSgt Jackson was informed by a prison imam in April 2022 that prison officials gave him the incorrect template for his waiver request, and prison officials made SSgt Jackson update the signature block and subject line of the request and resubmit it.) Instead, prison officials began issuing SSgt Jackson Disciplinary Reports in February 2022.

Although the specific punishments vary and the severity of the punishments has increased over time, the standard procedure since February 2022 has been for prison officials to:

1. Warn SSgt Jackson that he is not allowed to grow a beard;

2. Ask him if he has a “chit” or exemption and if he is going to shave;

3. Issue him a disciplinary report and find him guilty; and

4. Place him in disciplinary segregation for 30 days.

SSgt Jackson was first placed into disciplinary segregation on April 19, 2022. At the end of the 30-day disciplinary segregation period, prison officials place him into administrative segregation, and the cycle repeats.

Prison officials are aware that SSgt Jackson has converted to Islam, that he is required to grow a beard, and that he has a pending request for waiver in support of religious practice. Despite that knowledge, officials continue to issue him verbal or written Disciplinary Reports. In his first written Disciplinary Report (dated February 1, 2022), prison officials noted in their findings of guilt that SSgt Jackson “submitted an exemption of policy due to religious purpose of being Muslim.” In his second Disciplinary Report (dated March 4, 2022), prison officials noted that SSgt Jackson has been advised “on the matter by staff, Chaplain, and the Imam.” SSgt Jackson has submitted at least sixteen Prisoner Request Forms that explicitly or implicitly inform prison officials of his Muslim faith.

Prison officials’ ongoing punishment of SSgt Jackson for exercising his sincerely-held religious beliefs flagrantly violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. SSgt Jackson’s waiver request has been “pending” for almost one year. He has cycled between administrative and disciplinary segregation for over ten months. Federal law protects SSgt Jackson’s right to exercise his religious by maintaining a beard—and unless prison officials immediately cease their unjustifiable punishment of SSgt Jackson for those religious beliefs, we will be forced to ask a federal court to intervene.

Specifically, to stop their unlawful encroachment on SSgt Jackson’s protected right to freely practice his religion, prison officials must:

1. Immediately release SSgt Jackson from administrative and/or disciplinary segregation and reintegrate him into the general population of the prison.

2. Formally grant his pending request for a religious exemption to maintain a beard in accordance with his faith.

3. Restore to SSgt Jackson all privileges lost during his time in administrative and disciplinary segregation or otherwise resulting from the punishment he suffered for maintaining a beard, including the restoration of good-time credits to which he would have been entitled had he been serving his time in the general population without disciplinary action.

4. Prohibit prison officials from further disciplining SSgt Jackson for maintaining a beard or otherwise adhering to his sincerely-held religious beliefs.

Moreover, we have reason to believe that other Muslim prisoners—not just SSgt Jackson—are suffering encroachments on their abilities to practice their religion. To the extent that other prisoners are being similarly punished for their desire to maintain a beard, we demand that they, too, be granted religious exemptions.

Hannah Mullen

Staff Attorney