Monday, September 11, 2017

Virginia Department of Corrections Removes Five Percent Nation STG Label

"Despite discomfort with labeling the NGE a religion, the Nation occupies a place in my heart, mind and life parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God/a Supreme Being in more mainstream religions which are widely accepted in the United States." -Kalvin Donnell Coward [Coward v. Robinson, Chief of Corrections Operations] 

   In a recent August 28th, 2017 Virginia Department of Corrections Court Decision, U.S. Eastern District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that, "After twenty-one years of tracking Five Percenters, the (Virginia Department of Corrections) has not produced sufficient evidence supporting its position that the gang designation is warranted and furthers a compelling state interest," This decision is two-fold: 1.) It removed the STG [Security Threat Group] label within the VDOC and 2.) It now recognizes the Five Percent Nation [AKA The NGE or Nation of Gods and Earths] as a religion. As a religion and no longer a STG, Five Percenters within the VDOC are now free to exercise their right to practice and have the equal protection under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that was established in the 18th Century: 1791. As a religion, Five Percenters are now approved to operate in VDOC facilities along side other faiths such as Orthodox Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Asatru (Odinism), Eckankar, Integral Yoga, NOI [Nation of Islam], Santeria, Wicca and others that are less known

  Under the STG label, inmates who identify themselves as Five Percenters have not been allowed to practice the culture of the Five Percent, congregate, possess any of our literature, placed in solitary confinement because of their affiliation and even physically assaulted because of their unwillingness to denounce the culture. This is not something I'm speaking about as hearsay. These are experiences returning citizens have shared with me and what I know to be true from operating my Prison Correspondence Project for over a decade. There have been many occasions my books have been denied in facilities around the country, my letters and and work has been used as positive character evidence to support legal action to remove STG labels and Volunteer Service/Chaplain Departments contact me to request materials for Five Percenters in their facility. 

   Although many are unaware, according to a survey conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), correctional departments in thirteen states don't recognize the Five Percent Nation as a religion. These states are Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and West Virginia. In these states Five Percenters are also often labeled a STG, singled out receive the harshest treatment. In contrast, there are fifteen states with correctional departments that do recognize the Five Percent Nation as a religion. Those states are Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island. In those states where the Five Percent Nation is recognized as a religion, members are afforded some privileges such as access our Lessons [120], Supreme Mathematics, the Supreme Alphabet, permission to gather, observe honor days [holidays] and have dietary alternatives.

   While there is a general consensus among the Five Percent that any STG label needs to be removed, one of the larger concerns that Five Percent Nation members outside of correctional departments ["in the free cipher"] have with this decision, and other department of corrections court decisions, is the lack of inclusion and the religious designation. In regards to inclusion, while some would argue that the decision of a few is a victory in the best interest of the many, the many have argued that they were not informed about or included in the decisions of the few until they read this and other court decisions in the news. 

   Since our formal inception we have consistently taught and fought the stereotype that we are not a gang. In fact, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, the Father [Allah] and many of his young Five Percenters accompanied Mayor John Lindsay walk the streets of Harlem to deter rioting/looting and express condolences to our community. It was the Father himself who once declared that we should "kill all religion." This kill religion declaration did not mean its members. This declaration meant to destroy the hierarchical structure that religions use to arrest the development of its members by keeping them blind, deaf and dumb while its leaders make themselves rich from their labor. All you need to do is take a cursory glance to see followers of any religion living hand to mouth while their leaders live in mansions. Some among the Five Percent even strive to do the same thing. This is one of the main reasons the Father worked diligently to disassociate himself and his Five Percenters from religious bodies or any groups or organizations that functionally undermined the elements of cultural freedom. In taking this non-religious stance, the Father and many other Five Percenters paid and still pay dearly for it. In my article American Horror Story: Asylum Allah & Azreal I elaborate on how his being remanded to the NYS Department of Mental Hygiene and confinement in Bellevue and Matteawan State Hospital for two years at the age of 37, was a direct result of his non-religious stance.

   On one side of the spectrum some members of the Five Percent are insensitive to the needs and plight of our brothers and sisters in the belly of beast. Their conservative perspective is, "They shouldn't be in there in the first place" and somehow deserve to be denied free access to our culture and all of its elements -even though most of these brothers and sisters are incarcerated for non-violent offences and clearly not a part of a gang or a STG. Their illogic seems to be that, "You can be the God, Earth or Civilized Person when you get out." I call it illogical because imagine where we would be as a people if everyone who was incarcerated waited until they got out to add their cultural contribution to the society. Think about that.

   On the other side of the spectrum are those who are anti-religion. They want nothing to do with the word itself, words related to it or actions that look like it. Some of them have been traumatized by their experience with religion. From their perspective, these brothers and sisters in correctional facilities filing lawsuits for the Nation to be designated a religion are selling our Father's birthright for creature comforts and to be accepted in society. You have those who think court decisions like this are a victory for us. Some think it's a lack of foresight and a failure. In all fairness, everyone who is sincere, who has the right attitude and the proper aptitude, should have unrestricted access to learning our culture. Then it only becomes a question of, how can we make that possible while maintaining its integrity? 

   In this August 28th, 2017 VDOC Court Decision, even though its plaintiff Kalvin Donnell Coward and witnesses Starmel Allah [Ricky Panayoty] and Born King Allah [Donald Palmer] articulated that the Five Percent Nation [AKA The NGE or Nation of Gods and Earths] is a culture, not a religion, it was Judge Leonie Brinkema's conclusion that: 

"the Court finds that the VDOC violated the plaintiffs rights under RLUIPA and the First Amendment by designating the NGE an STG thereby enforcing a zero tolerance policy that prohibits plaintiff from possessing his sacred texts and associating with other NGE adherents, and refusing to recognize the NGE as a religion. In accordance with this finding, the Department will be ordered to remove the STG designation from the NGE, recognize it as a religion, and afford it the rights and privileges enumerated in the Department's operating procedure for Offender Religious Programs, including but not limited to permitting NGE adherents to observe their four honor days, possess their foundational texts, and engage in communal worship, subject to the availability of an approved spiritual leader and under the necessary visual monitoring. This holding does not preclude the Department from placing restrictions on NGE adherents as necessary to maintain security and order, provided that the Department does so within the confines of RLUIPA and applicable prison policies. An appropriate order entering judgment consistent with this finding will be issued with this Memorandum Opinion."

   Because this Court Decision is now on record in the VDOC, as are similar decisions in department of corrections in other states, the question we must ask ourselves now is, "What's the next step?" For those who disagree with the VDOC Court Decision, are we willing to support legal action and be upstanding citizens who produce the cultural contributions that help define our identity within the context of culture? As I stated earlier, many of my contributions, what I presently do, and the public positions I hold is empirical evidence that we are not a religion or a gang. Keep in mind that this religious designation was credibly weighted by the plaintiffs religious "expert" and Muslim Prof. Michael Muhammad Knight who posits "the Nation [of the Five Percent] is every bit as much of a religion as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other forms of Islam" and representing that "this view of the Nation is shared by most scholars in the academic study of religion." Although Knight, academics who study religion and other outsiders are respectfully entitled to their opinion, that opinion is not the perspective of our Founder or the general consensus of those of us who are of the Five Percent. Whether inside or outside of correctional facility, our culture is not a belief system, we don't engage in communal/corporate worship, we don't have a spiritual leader and we don't teach, as Coward stated in the court record, "a continued existence beyond this dense physical world, a continued existence that most religions refer to as the afterlife." 

   For those who agree with this or any Court decisions that designate us as a religion, are we willing to also support legal action and be upstanding citizens who produce the cultural contributions that help define our identity outside of the boundaries of those religious designations? Now that more of our brothers and sisters have access to our culture within the VDOC, how can we help ensure that they're learning this correctly and not manufacturing some quasi-religious hybrid that has no semblance of what the Father taught?

   In conclusion, I encourage you to not only read this court ruling, and other court rulings for that matter, but to research the court documents themselves in order to get a better understanding of what's going on and what you can do actually about it. Knowledge is the foundation, not assumption. You can research/download this document below


No comments: