On February 28, 2021, simply after 9pm, 9 Muslim males eliminated their footwear, lined up in single file, and knelt quietly for Isha, their religion’s obligatory evening prayer, inside a Missouri state jail within the small metropolis of Bonne Terre.

Their motion was neither uncommon nor provocative. The lads had been praying collectively within the widespread house of their wing at Japanese Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Heart (ERDCC) for a number of months with out incident, as much as 4 occasions a day, after COVID restrictions put the jail’s chapel off-limits.

They lived in Housing Unit 4 or 4-Home’s B wing, which was often known as the “honour dorm” and was reserved for prisoners with no latest infractions. In different wings of the boys’s jail, prisoners got restricted day out of their cells. However within the honour dorm, the boys could possibly be out of their cells all day lengthy within the wing’s floor flooring widespread space, heating meals that that they had bought on the commissary within the shared microwave, or gathering to speak or play playing cards or chess at tables bolted to the concrete flooring.

The group of worshippers who gathered to hope behind the widespread space started with three prisoners and had grown to between 9 and 14. Qadir (Reginald) Clemons, 52, who often gave the decision to prayer, says he had periodically checked in with the jail chaplain, and the “bubble officer” within the management room, which commanded a view of all 4 wings, to verify that there can be no downside with the group praying. Christian prisoners additionally held communal prayer circles all through ERDCC, together with within the honour dorm.

The ERDCC jail in Missouri [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

On this evening, nonetheless, the kneeling males can be charged at by jail guards. 5 of them can be doused with pepper spray till they writhed in ache. Seven can be shackled and, most of them shoeless, marched about 50 metres by means of the winter mud of a recreation yard to a different housing unit the place they might be put into solitary confinement, additionally known as administrative segregation, AdSeg, or just – “the Gap”.

The group’s chief, Mustafa (Steven) Stafford, 58, a brief, jovial man whom the others known as “Sheikh” on account of his dedication to Islam, can be assaulted en path to AdSeg and once more as soon as there. After their launch from the Gap 10 days later, Stafford and others would face additional retaliation.

Not one of the males – who dubbed themselves the “Bonne Terre Seven” after the incident – have been accused of something other than disobeying a lieutenant’s orders to cease praying, which their religion dictates they can not do, besides in an emergency. Based on the now-retired lieutenant, no jail official was disciplined over the incident.

This account of a peaceable prayer’s violent disruption and its aftermath is predicated on dozens of in-person and phone interviews, together with with six of the Bonne Terre Seven, eight different prisoners who witnessed the assault and several other officers. It’s bolstered by accounts from a lawsuit filed in 2022 by Clemons, now amended to incorporate his eight fellow worshippers, who’re petitioning the courtroom to declare that the Missouri Division of Corrections (MODOC) can not deny their spiritual rights and to award them damages for what they suffered. It additionally attracts on interviews with human and prisoner rights advocates and the boys’s attorneys from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The image that emerges is of a facility, and a bigger jail system, that usually treats Muslim prisoners, the vast majority of whom are Black, with suspicion, hostility and racism.

Even towards this backdrop, the ERDCC assault stands out for its savagery. “I’ve by no means seen a case that includes this degree of violence,” says Kimberly Noe-Lehenbauer, a CAIR lawyer representing the 9 victims.

The jail

ERDCC is situated on the outskirts of Bonne Terre within the low, rolling hills of the Ozark Plateau, 60 miles (96.6km) south of Missouri’s second-largest metropolis, St Louis.

Bonne Terre is in St Francois County, which is almost 93 p.c white and squarely Republican; 73 p.c of voters supported Donald Trump within the 2020 election. Trump indicators nonetheless proliferate at the moment, together with different markers of native beliefs; a “Jesus Loves You” billboard sits on the facet of a state freeway, adopted quickly after by a entrance door wrapped within the Accomplice flag.

A confederate flag is displayed outside a single-storey red brick house.
A Accomplice flag covers the door of a home in Bonne Terre [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

ERDCC opened in 2003, bringing a brand new most important business to the previous mining city, whose centre sits atop a big mine that was shuttered in 1962. Town has a inhabitants of underneath 7,000, together with the prisoners, which as of July 2020 numbered practically 2,600 males.

ERDCC is a sprawling D-shaped mixed-security encampment. It has the state’s largest jail inhabitants and encompasses 11 housing items, 10 of these with 4 wings and a management unit or “bubble” within the centre.

The encampment additionally has a eating corridor, a constructing housing instructional programmes and a medical facility, three leisure yards, an consumption space, and a small manufacturing facility the place some prisoners produce cleaning soap and different cleansing provides. A visitation room lies in a constructing simply previous the jail entrance. That very same constructing homes Missouri’s solely execution chamber, although condemned prisoners are held in Potosi, 15 miles (24km) west, and delivered to ERDCC shortly earlier than their scheduled execution.

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