Why were musilm prisoners in the US pepper-sprayed while praying

The prisoners pepper-sprayed while praying

By Jen Marlowe

On February 28, 2021, just after 9pm, nine Muslim men removed their shoes, lined up in single file, and knelt quietly for Isha, their faith’s mandatory night prayer, inside a Missouri state prison in the small city of Bonne Terre.

Their action was neither unusual nor provocative. The men had been praying together in the common space of their wing at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC) for several months without incident, up to four times a day, after COVID restrictions put the prison’s chapel off-limits.

They lived in Housing Unit Four or 4-House’s B wing, which was known as the “honour dorm” and was reserved for prisoners with no recent infractions. In other wings of the men’s prison, prisoners were given limited time out of their cells. But in the honour dorm, the men could be out of their cells all day long in the wing’s ground floor common area, heating food that they had purchased at the commissary in the shared microwave, or gathering to talk or play cards or chess at tables bolted to the concrete floors.

The group of worshippers who gathered to pray at the back of the common area began with three prisoners and had grown to between nine and 14. Qadir (Reginald) Clemons, 52, who usually gave the call to prayer, says he had periodically checked in with the prison chaplain, and the “bubble officer” in the control room, which commanded a view of all four wings, to confirm that there would be no problem with the group praying. Christian prisoners also held communal prayer circles throughout ERDCC, including in the honour dorm.

Cars can be seen parked in front of a single storey prison with a green tiled roof.

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

On this night, however, the kneeling men would be charged at by prison guards. Five of them would be doused with pepper spray until they writhed in pain. Seven would be shackled and, most of them shoeless, marched about 50 metres through the winter mud of a recreation yard to another housing unit where they would be put into solitary confinement, also called administrative segregation, AdSeg, or simply - “the Hole”.

The group’s leader, Mustafa (Steven) Stafford, 58, a short, jovial man whom the others called “Sheikh” due to his commitment to Islam, would be assaulted en route to AdSeg and again once there. After their release from the Hole 10 days later, Stafford and others would face further retaliation.

None of the men - who dubbed themselves the “Bonne Terre Seven” after the incident - were accused of anything aside from disobeying a lieutenant’s orders to stop praying, which their faith dictates they cannot do, except in an emergency. According to the now-retired lieutenant, no prison official was disciplined over the incident.

This account of a peaceful prayer’s violent disruption and its aftermath is based on dozens of in-person and telephone interviews, including with six of the Bonne Terre Seven, eight other prisoners who witnessed the attack and several officers. It is bolstered by accounts from a lawsuit filed in 2022 by Clemons, now amended to include his eight fellow worshippers, who are petitioning the court to declare that the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC) cannot deny their religious rights and to award them damages for what they suffered. It also draws on interviews with human and prisoner rights advocates and the men’s lawyers from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The picture that emerges is of a facility, and a larger prison system, that often treats Muslim prisoners, the majority of whom are Black, with suspicion, hostility and racism.

Even against this backdrop, the ERDCC attack stands out for its savagery. “I’ve never seen a case that involves this level of violence,” says Kimberly Noe-Lehenbauer, a CAIR lawyer representing the nine victims.

The prison

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

Bonne Terre is in St Francois County, which is nearly 93 percent white and squarely Republican; 73 percent of voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election. Trump signs still proliferate today, along with other markers of local beliefs; a “Jesus Loves You” billboard sits on the side of a state highway, followed soon after by a front door wrapped in the Confederate flag.

A confederate flag is displayed outside a single-storey red brick house.

A Confederate flag covers the door of a house near Bonne Terre [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

ERDCC opened in 2003, bringing a new main industry to the former mining town, whose centre sits atop a large mine that was shuttered in 1962. The city has a population of under 7,000, including the prisoners, which as of July 2020 numbered nearly 2,600 men.

ERDCC is a sprawling D-shaped mixed-security encampment. It has the state’s largest prison population and encompasses 11 housing units, 10 of those with four wings and a control unit or “bubble” in the centre.

The encampment also has a dining hall, a building housing educational programmes and a medical facility, three recreational yards, an intake area, and a small factory where some prisoners produce soap and other cleaning supplies. A visitation room lies in a building just past the prison entrance. That same building houses Missouri’s only execution chamber, though condemned prisoners are held in Potosi, 15 miles (24km) west, and brought to ERDCC shortly before their scheduled execution.

Volatile COVID years


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[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Michele Basham, the former lieutenant who first ordered the men to stop praying, lives with three dogs and a hutch full of rabbits in a low-slung house on a dirt road about 25 miles (40km) from the prison. She retired from the MODOC in December 2022.

Fifty-nine years old and white, with bright blue eyes and a no-nonsense manner, Basham is originally from Pittsburgh, the second largest city in Pennsylvania. She grew up poor and close to inner-city violence. This background, she says, gave her more in common with the prisoners she guarded - roughly half of them were Black and many came from St Louis and Kansas City, the two largest and most racially diverse cities in Missouri - than with her predominantly rural, white former colleagues.

A recruitment sign on a wire fence outside a prison says the prison is recruiting corrections officers.

Basham describes staffing shortages at the prison [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

Basham, who had worked at ERDCC since it opened, describes a severe staffing crisis at the time of the incident.

Large numbers of Corrections Officers (COs) started resigning when the MODOC became tobacco-free in 2018, she says. Cigarettes kept prisoners and staff alike calm, according to Basham. Then COVID outbreaks starting in 2020 led to illness among the COs, resignations and difficulty recruiting replacements, which further reduced staffing numbers, leading to longer shifts and mandated overtime. The ensuing burnout and stress led to more resignations, with ERDCC 150 short of the optimal 400 COs, and prisoners locked down in their cells for extended periods as a result. Tensions soared. Staff were “getting beat up with metal pipes” while drug overdoses were also rising “like crazy,” Basham says.

According to MODOC data obtained by the advocacy organisation Missouri Prison Reform, there were on average 38 overdoses per month in the state prison system for the first nine months of 2021, more than double the overdoses during the same period in 2018. “As soon as count cleared,” Basham explains, people would use. An hour later, Basham says, “You’d find one, unresponsive.”

Between the violence and overdoses, the volatility was like nothing Basham had seen in 25 years as a CO. “You do this right and you do it fairly, everybody’s safe … It was no longer that way,” she says. “When I could no longer train or teach anybody, it was disheartening. And I left.”

'All heck broke loose'


An illustration of two people who are prisoners playing dominos on a table.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

On the night of the pepper spray attack, Basham says she was “walking the wing,” part of her role as a supervisor, though 4-House wasn’t her usual zone.

Just as she was leaving, she turned to take a final look and saw men praying together in the common area. She was certain they hadn’t been there moments earlier.

Knowing that prayer was allowed only in the chapel - though the chapel had been closed due to COVID - or in individual cells, she suspected that these men were testing her. She approached them.

Stafford, a chipper, Black man with a barrel build, a scraggly salt-and-pepper moustache and a shaved head, stood two steps in front of the others, leading the prayer.

Stafford grew up in St Louis and first embraced Islam in 2003. A few years after his imprisonment at ERDCC in 2013, younger Muslims started calling him “Sheikh”. He initially protested the moniker, saying he only possessed "a grain of sand's worth of knowledge". But his younger worshippers convinced him that he was a community elder and was due that sign of respect.

Stafford and Basham met shortly after his arrival, and both describe their relationship as largely positive. “Mr Stafford’s been with me at the camp for a long time,” Basham says. “And he’s never been defiant, he was happy-go-lucky.”

Stafford worked for Basham when she was in charge of the kitchen, and describes debates they would have about God. He is quick to add that though their views on God and religion differed, those conversations were never contentious.

Stafford knew Basham was a stickler for the rules, and that head coverings were not allowed, so when he saw her approach that night, he quickly slipped off his kufi, a brimless cap often worn during prayer. Basham commanded the men to stop praying; Stafford instead quickened his pace and tried to speed the brief prayer to its end.

But Basham saw this as a sign of disrespect. Before that evening, she claims, in her more than two decades as a CO, never “have I ever had anybody openly defy and do that particular praying in the wings, and standing there and doing their carpet, their bending, and their bowing”.

Basham believes that Stafford was being influenced by Clemons, whom the other Muslim prisoners considered a community elder.

Trim but strong, standing 186cm (6 feet, 1 inch), with a short, neatly trimmed moustache, Clemons comports himself with quiet dignity. He has spent much of his free time over the last five years developing a new international economic system and currency that would reward countries with the best records related to human rights, environmental conservation, and more.

Clemons was transferred to ERDCC in 2018 from Potosi, where he was on death row until his sentence was reduced to life without parole. Potosi has a culture, says Basham, of prisoners not talking to guards. Clemons agrees that this was true while he was there, but, he says, he would interact cordially with the officers he had to deal with and otherwise tried to keep his head down.

Yet shortly before the incident, Basham says, Stafford stopped talking to her the way he used to.

Clemons denies influencing Stafford or anyone else to defy staff. “I’m someone who avoids conflict,” he explains.

Stafford also dismisses the idea that Clemons influenced his relationship with Basham. Any change, he says, was rooted in the escalating tensions between COs and prisoners at ERDCC.

Basham says she was “just as polite as I possibly could have been” when she told the men several times to stop praying.

Other prisoners in the common area playing dominoes, cards or talking, saw the men begin their prayer, and witnessed what followed.

They report Basham growing angrier, yelling, “There’s no praying outside the chapel!” Some say that they urged Basham to wait, knowing that the prayer only lasted about five minutes - but to no effect.

“Basham came in, ready to go,” says witness Carl Sutherland, who was at a table with a few other prisoners at the time.

“You could look at her face and she was visibly upset that they didn’t comply,” says another prisoner and witness Calvin Smith.

Walaa (Montrell) Moore, one of the worshippers nicknamed “Tall,” due to his 207cm (6 foot, 8 inches) and approximately 270-pound (122kg) frame, describes what followed as “the triggering point to where all heck broke loose”. The events unfolded quickly, and, in the ensuing chaos, several details are not entirely clear.

They 'came in deep, quick'


An illustration of a person's, specifically a police officer's hand with a lit cigarette.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Several witnesses say that they saw Basham make a call on her radio; at least two remember hearing her call “10-5,” which officers and prisoners alike have described as being used to convey that an officer is in dire need of backup, usually due to assault. Others, including Basham herself, aren’t sure if she made the call, or if it was Heather Price, the “bubble officer” on duty. (Price declined an interview request.)

Either way, Basham insists that the call would not have been a 10-5 since she wasn’t being assaulted. She says it would have been more likely that she, or the bubble officer, called a “10-10,” which she describes as code to let the sergeant know to “please come to the housing unit”. According to Noe-Lehenbauer, the men’s lawyer, two of the nine worshippers abruptly stopped praying after they heard Basham call for backup, and managed to slip away, up the stairs to their cells.

Witnesses say that officers immediately poured into the wing. Their number ranges from five to 30 depending on who you ask; the Bonne Terre Seven remember the higher numbers, Basham and another officer, speaking anonymously, insist it was far fewer, and witnesses remember numbers somewhere in between. Despite this discrepancy, the Bonne Terre Seven and the B wing witnesses all agree: it was over the top for what had been so far, just a battle of wills.

“[Officers] came in deep, quick,” remembers witness Clayton Fisher, a 40-year-old prisoner. “They called assistance like they’re getting attacked.”

The officers were led by Sergeant Carl Hart, a dark-haired man who prisoners say was known for his belligerence. Basham isn’t sure when Hart arrived and there is some discrepancy from the Bonne Terre Seven and prisoner witnesses about this detail, however, most agree he entered after Basham with the other officers at his heels.

Regardless, Basham says that Hart, 37, wasn’t likely to de-escalate a sensitive situation. She describes Hart, who comes from Farmington, a city 13 miles (21km) southeast of ERDCC, as aggressive and overly eager to use force. Still, “he worked for me, and he’s to do his job,” she says. Basham told Hart to end the prayer.

Sitting at a table by the window in her front room and smoking a cigarette,  Basham says: “I didn’t see that it was gonna go as bad as it did.”

'Why y'all doing this?'


An illustration of a person who is a prisoner covering their face with an x formation of their arms because of the pepper spray being sprayed at them.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

One of the worshippers, Rajul (Mark) Holliman, 50, who is known as “Mountain Man” due to his long beard, dreadlocks, and affinity for spending time in the mountains, only heard Basham order the men to stop praying once. He quickly “salaamed out,” or stopped praying.

“[Basham] pointed right at me and said, ‘Put cuffs on him,’” Holliman recalls. He was cuffed and hustled out of the housing unit – he doesn’t remember by whom. Basham believes she escorted him.

Holliman later wondered: was he intentionally spared the pepper spray as the only white man in the group? In a written statement he sent to CAIR shortly after the incident, Holliman recalls the escorting officer telling him, “Let’s get out of here before you get maced.”

Hart began screaming at the men. Stafford saw him pop the seal off a fire hydrant-sized canister of oleoresin capsicum or OC, commonly known as pepper spray.

Nearby, Khalil (Vincent) Hood was torn. He had converted to Islam the month before and wanted to continue praying but stopped when he saw Hart wielding the pepper spray and was cuffed.

Stafford looked up to see Hart aiming the canister directly at him.

“He hits me with the mace, BOOM, and I go down on the ground,” recalls Stafford, who suffers from asthma. Another officer began to handcuff him. Stafford says that one wrist was already cuffed when Hart called out, “Where’s the leader?” and sprayed Stafford again with the orange aerosol, blasting agony into his eyes, mouth, nose and ears.

“He drenched me,” says Stafford.

Hart then marched up and down the line of remaining worshippers – Clemons, Moore, Wasiq (Wendall) Harris, and Maleek (Marcus) Howard – say witnesses, yelling and spraying excessively. Some of the men remember kneeling at that point, others remember standing. Clemons panicked but steeled himself. “I owe God the respect of finishing my prayer,” he says. On Hart’s first pass, Clemons was sprayed in the forehead. The second time, he was hit in his eyes.

The other guards joined Hart in dousing worshippers, all within a matter of moments, witnesses say. Howard, 30, was also new to Islam. With an “M” tattooed between his eyebrows and diamonds under his eyes, Howard says that he hadn’t heard any commands; he was used to blocking out noise in the common area so he could focus on praying.

Kneeling in prayer, Howard suddenly felt something wet hit his face and was slammed into a wall. He stood up and whirled around, ready to defend himself against another prisoner, only to realise that he and his prayer mates were being pepper sprayed and he had been shoved against the wall by an officer. Confused, he put his hands up.

“We’re defenceless, we’re on our knees,” he remembers thinking. “Why ya’ll doing this?”

'Whole body on fire'


An illustration of a person who is a prisoner with handcuffs behind their back.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Moore, who had also embraced Islam only a few months prior, remembers standing when, after one order to stop praying, he felt a sensation “like somebody grabbed a fork, stuck it in your eyes and you can’t get it out”.

Blinded, he staggered backwards, putting his hands behind him to get cuffed, but officers continued spraying him. It is unclear how many canisters were used but Moore remembers being sprayed from multiple directions. By the time he was cuffed and taken outside, his grey sweater was stained a burnt orange. “My whole body was literally on fire,” he says.

Throughout the ordeal, witnesses agree, none of the worshippers showed any aggression. “The only ones that were getting attacked were the guys that were praying,” says Fisher.

So much pepper spray was employed, say the witnesses, that even prisoners who were not targeted suffered. Witness Douglas Williams says he was “choking and coughing” and had to cover his mouth. Another, Eric Campbell-Bey, felt his eyes burning. The fumes lingered in the unit for hours. Anthony Waters’ eyes were still watering when he came out of his cell the following morning.

Williams is still shaken when he remembers the fury directed at the men kneeling in worship. “It hurt me on the inside,” he says.

For her part, Basham claims she didn’t see the pepper spray - she says she was already hauling Holliman outside the housing unit - but says it’s policy to subdue noncompliant prisoners with a one-two second burst before applying handcuffs, calling it kinder than using other kinds of force that could result in injuries such as broken bones. According to a former MODOC staff member who provides information to Missouri Prison Reform, pepper spray use by prison staff should be “approximately one short burst to the chest area if possible. Continue the short bursts until offender becomes compliant or subdued by staff.”

But the victims and witnesses say the torrents of spray far exceeded a one-two second burst. According to witness Sutherland, Hart and officers “were using the mace as a weapon”.

A photo of Mark (Rajul) Holliman holding up his ID card with the word

Rajul (Mark) Holliman at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

Handcuffed, burning

Dr Rohini Haar, a medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights and adjunct professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, says the pain and injuries induced by pepper spray - including chemical burns on the skin, burning in the eyes and nose, a sensation of suffocation or imminent death - can be exacerbated when it’s used in large quantities, in enclosed spaces, and fired directly at people as opposed to in the air, or if it’s employed on people with respiratory issues, including asthma - and the COs' usage checked all those boxes.

Many prisoners and a former colleague expressed surprise at Basham’s involvement, describing her as typically helpful and friendly. Basham usually kept the other guards in check, says Sutherland. Former ERDCC employee Kimberly Bennett says Basham always communicated with and cared for prisoners. “If there was something wrong … she would fix it,” Bennett says. Holliman describes Basham replacing prisoners’ broken ID clips for free, which they would otherwise have to pay 50 cents for from their commissary funds.

Basham herself speaks with pride about her relationship with inmates. They called her “Ms B,” and would go to her with requests for assistance, including help finding jobs within the prison. “And I’m gonna do what I can to get them the help that they want,” she explains.

“Do I feel bad that it came to that? Yes, I do. Because it shouldn’t happen,” reflects Basham on the use of pepper spray. “I figured that everyone [the COs] would apply the wrist restraints, [the prisoners would] take a violation, and just go on about their business.”

Hood, the recent convert who had stopped praying along with Holliman, was stunned when he glanced back at his prayer mates as he was being led away. “It looked like they had buckets of mace dumped on ’em,” he says.

But for the handcuffed, burning and disoriented Bonne Terre Seven, the ordeal was just beginning.

'They're whooping on the Sheikh'


An illustration of a person who is a prisoner walking on grass and mud but with only their feet with muddy socks showing with two police officers with only their feet showing and their black boots, one on each side of the person with muddy socks in the middle.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

The seven men were immediately led outside 4-House into the cold February night. Five had been blasted with pepper spray and were still blinded.

Stafford, who had his hands cuffed behind his back, heard Hart order: “Put him down.” An officer hefted Stafford, slammed him to the concrete and jumped on his back with his knees. Another officer “put his forearm across my throat, cutting off my oxygen,” says Stafford in one of at least a dozen phone interviews. Holliman, who was the first one led out of the wing, and Howard saw the officers atop Stafford as they were hustled along. Moore heard Stafford gasp, “I can’t breathe!” and remembers Hart responding: “If you can talk, [expletive], you can breathe.” Stafford says Hart then tried to spray him again, but the canister was empty. Officers shackled his ankles and returned him upright to walk at a shuffle.

Basham says that Stafford fought the whole way out the door, but the witnesses don’t corroborate this. Stafford and many of his fellow worshippers believe he was targeted because he led the prayer.

Unable to see, Clemons, who had only socks on his feet, walked gingerly. “I don’t wanna walk too slow because I don’t want to give them an excuse to slam me on the ground,” he explains. The men were taken to the infirmary where a nurse recorded their names and numbers but offered no eyewash or soap and water. Then, the officers pushed the mostly shoeless men across a cold, muddy recreation yard, though pavements were available.

“Y'all just being petty now,” Howard recalls thinking.

The men were hustled into an empty wing in 1-House, which was now being converted into an impromptu Hole. Officers placed each man in a separate cell and stripped them to check for contraband.

Stafford was once again singled out. Four guards entered his cell, slammed his face on the floor, and beat him, he recalls. “They’re whooping on the Sheikh!” Stafford remembers Harris yelling. Instead of unshackling his ankles to strip him, Hart ordered an officer to cut off his garments.

Stafford says he begged them not to destroy his sweatsuit, which he had purchased at the prison canteen. He remembers Hart sneering in reply: “Ask Allah to save your clothes.”

A photo of Marcus (Maleek) Howard in handcuffs.

Maleek (Marcus) Howard at Algoa Correctional Center [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

An ERDCC officer, speaking anonymously, was present for some of this and verified elements of Stafford’s account, including the order to cut off clothing. Stafford was thrashing, he says, making it hard to unshackle him - but adds that Hart removed the ankle restraints as soon as Stafford’s clothes were shorn away.

After searching Stafford, officers gave him new underwear. When he put it on, however, Stafford says that his genitals began burning - someone had sprayed the crotch with pepper spray, he believes. The sink in his cell didn't work, he says, so he used the toilet to rinse himself off, only to find that water intensified his agony. He had never been exposed to pepper spray before and didn’t know to expect that. “All I could try to do is pray and beg for the pain to go away.”

Clemons, who also has asthma, says he felt completely vulnerable. “I’m sitting here naked, covered in mace, can’t see, barely can breathe, and I’m in handcuffs … there’s nothing I can do, but wait,” Clemons recalls, with a slight break in his voice.

Scared, upset, confused


An illustration of a person who is a prisoner's fist banging on a door.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Officers returned boxers, spray-covered T-shirts, and muddy socks to Clemons and others, but Moore says he was left naked for hours. Although they asked, the men weren’t allowed to wash off the pepper spray.

The cells were frigid. Clemons sat in the dark on the edge of the steel bed frame, hunched over himself, simultaneously freezing and burning. “For the life of me, I couldn’t grasp why this was happening,” he says.

Others were faring worse: Harris vomited, hyperventilated, and went into shock, falling in and out of consciousness, according to the prisoners’ lawsuit. Harris, who has been in and out of AdSeg since the attack, has not responded to requests for an interview. Haar, the doctor, however, affirms that respiratory distress, not being able to breathe, and fainting are consistent with research on the effects of pepper spray. “Especially if you’re not able to clean yourself off [with soap and water], take off the contaminated clothing ... there’s ongoing exposure,” she explains.

The men shouted out in pain, banging on the doors of their cells. “I’m trying to get everybody to calm down a little bit because everybody is real scared, upset, confused,” says Clemons. He also began talking to the others – who could all hear one another - about what they could do moving forward, believing that the prison would try to bury the incident.

At about 2:30am, approximately five hours after being taken to the Hole, officers returned with a list of conduct violations, in which Hart wrote that he had “given several directives to submit to wrist restraints” after which he applied “a short burst” of pepper spray to the men’s faces. The seven were charged with “acts of organized disobedience” and were given mattresses, clothes, and a few of their possessions. Clemons received his Bible, which he studied due to his belief in understanding different religious perspectives, but he did not receive his Quran. He finally dozed off, waking at 5:30am for Fajr, the dawn prayer. He had a view of a clock and made the call to prayer.

Exhausted and still covered with orange spray, Stafford led the men, each in their separate cells, in prayer.

'Staff was fearing retaliation'


An illustration of a security camera on a wall.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

That morning, tension was high at ERDCC. Muslim prisoners preparing breakfast trays in 1-House told Stafford that word had spread and that the prison’s approximately 274 Muslims were livid.

“They were ready to turn this place up and shut it down,” Stafford says, adding that via the men he implored his fellow Muslims not to riot. Clemons is grateful for everyone’s restraint. Otherwise, he fears, “they would’ve been able to beat on us, break bones, and even choke us to death if they wanted to”.

At about 8am, Muslim leaders among ERDCC prisoners were summoned to the “captain’s shack,” or prison control centre, including the resident imam, Umar (Stacy) Shelton, a prisoner who also serves as the liaison between Muslim prisoners and the staff, and another leader who often assists Shelton and asked to remain anonymous.

Shelton says that at the meeting, Deputy Warden Matt Raymond promised to review the surveillance footage, and that if he saw that the Bonne Terre Seven showed no aggression towards the officers but merely continued praying, he would ensure that they would receive showers, be returned to the honour dorm, and their conduct violations would be expunged.

“[Raymond] said that this needed to be communicated to the other Muslims because staff was fearing retaliation,” says Shelton.

Speaking anonymously, an ERDCC CO who watched the footage says it’s clear that Hart pepper-sprayed “too fast.” The CO said that on the video, he saw one of the prisoners headbutt an officer in the face, but only after the prisoner had been pepper-sprayed.

Shelton requested that he and Raymond meet with Muslim prisoners in the chapel. Raymond agreed, and a call went out to all the housing units inviting Muslim prisoners to the chapel where he reiterated those promises to the 50-60 Muslims who joined the impromptu gathering. During the discussion, Shelton says, one Muslim pointed out that Christians had prayer circles out on the wings and were never told to disband. “[Raymond] stated that he did not see an issue with Muslims wanting to pray together in their wings,” says Shelton.

After multiple attempts to reach Raymond via LinkedIn, phone and email, he redirected Al Jazeera's inquiries to the MODOC.

Matthew Downs, the prison’s gang task force officer, went to the Hole to inform the men of Raymond’s promises. According to an anonymous source close to Missouri Prison Reform, all facilities have a gang task force officer whose job it is to photograph prisoners’ tattoos, interview known incoming gang members and closely monitor their behaviour. Bennett, who is a former 1-House sergeant, says Downs was chosen to speak to them not because of his role, but because he is skilled at de-escalation. However, the Bonne Terre Seven saw his intervention as a sign that they were being treated as gang members. Downs, who responded to an initial text confirming his identity, did not respond to further messages or calls requesting an interview.

Clemons had been surprised by Downs’ mention of the warden wanting to review a video of the surveillance footage. “That was the first time that I knew there was a reviewable video,” he explains.

The missing video

Later that morning, the men were permitted to shower, though the water initially reactivated the pepper spray. “The edges of my eyelids were real raw, and the sides of my neck were raw and I could feel it was chemically burnt and real tender and everything. And it burned my private parts real bad,” Clemons recalls. But scrubbing with soap helped lift the spray, and after washing himself four times, Clemons felt his body cleansed of it.

Nurses came to check the men’s vital signs and gave them medical request forms in case future issues emerged. Then they were allowed to make a phone call. Clemons rang his fiancé and asked her to tell his mother and daughter that he was all right, because he knew how worried they would be after he missed his usual 7am call. “My mother’s been through this a whole lot,” says Clemons, referring to previous times he could not call due to being in the Hole or when the facility was under lockdown.

The Bonne Terre Seven remained in the Hole for 10 days. Clemons says they passed the time talking to one another, discussing the Quran, and praying. The men grew closer during this time, he says, adding a “thick layer” to the bond they had already felt with one another.

While in AdSeg, Clemons repeatedly requested that he be provided with an “Informal Resolution Request Form” to fill out, the first step for any prisoner wishing to lodge a grievance with prison authorities and seek redress. According to Clemons, his requests to receive the form were ignored.

On March 10, when the men were released, their conduct violations were reduced from “organized disobedience” to lesser - soon to be expunged - charges of “creating a disturbance”.

The 10 days in AdSeg were considered time served for those lesser charges. When being written up for a conduct violation, prisoners are allowed to make a statement. In response to the new charges, Clemons stated, “I have not had access to the grievance procedure. I would like to retain the use of force video for civil litigation.”

Stafford’s statement also asked for the video to be preserved; others requested the same in writing once they were out of the Hole and had access to filing grievance forms. “The video surveillance will confirm my compliance,” Holliman wrote.

The footage has yet to be produced.

Al Jazeera filed a request for it under the Sunshine Law, Missouri state’s law addressing the public’s freedom to access information, only to receive a denial based on “institutional security”.

Was the video preserved? “Who knows?” says Bennett, who stopped working at MODOC in August 2021, and whose relationship with her former employer has soured. She says she wouldn’t be surprised if it “disappeared”. “They’re all crooked,” she alleges of the administration at ERDCC and throughout the MODOC. “It's all political, and it's all a bunch of backstabbing, covering up stuff.”



An illustration of a person who is a prisoner reading a book on a table with two piles of books on each side of him, covering his face.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

For three days, the men were able to pray peacefully together as before. Then, the pendulum swung harshly back.

On the evening of March 13, after communal prayer, Stafford says that Lieutenant Brett Renk warned him that if they prayed again in the wing they’d face the same fate as before, regardless of Raymond’s promises. If a new policy wasn’t in writing, Stafford remembers the lieutenant saying, it didn’t exist. Resident imam Shelton sent a request to Raymond to put his assurances into writing. He didn’t receive a response.

Then, Stafford says, the retaliation began.

Stafford worked in the kitchen as the lead baker, earning $40 a month. Hart made his employment progressively more difficult, Stafford says. Three Saturdays in a row, officers did not let him out of his cell to report to the kitchen, telling him that Hart had told them he’d been fired. Eventually, someone in the kitchen would call to ask where Stafford was and he’d be allowed to go to work. The interference peaked during the holy month of Ramadan, which began in mid-April and requires Muslims to observe a daily fast. While en route to prepare trays for suhoor, the meal eaten before the sun rises, Hart, or officers under his command, strip-searched Stafford nine different times.

“There’s a short window between them letting us out and the fast actually beginning,” says Stafford, who began carrying his socks and underwear in his pocket to expedite the search. Before the end of Ramadan, he learned from his fellow bakers that the guards wanted him fired. The reason he was given for his eventual termination was that he was a bully. He is certain that the firing was retribution for filing grievance complaints about the assault. “They took my livelihood and basically tried to destroy me mentally,” Stafford says over the phone.

Clemons, who has spent endless hours studying in the prison’s law library and working on his case after being imprisoned in 1993, has become something of a jailhouse lawyer. He started pursuing multiple grievance complaints about the pepper spray incident. He then began filing complaints about ERDCC’s failure to process those complaints.

In October 2021, he was abruptly transferred to Jefferson City Correctional Center, hours from his family in St Louis. His fiancé was denied visitation, ostensibly because of an unpaid speeding ticket.

In January 2022, Clemons, Stafford and Harris self-filed a joint, federal lawsuit alleging deprivation of their rights. The court split the lawsuit into separate ones. Only Clemons’ case went forward, and formed the basis of the complaint later filed by CAIR with the eight other worshippers.

Holliman also filed grievances, and in August 2021 was shunted to Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, and then to Farmington Correctional Center in August 2023. “If you file something that carries merit,” he says, “they will transfer you to another institution to try to slow your process down.”

The Bonne Terre Seven are currently scattered across five different prisons in Missouri; Al Jazeera visited them in three of those prisons.

Harris has been in and out of AdSeg for trumped-up reasons, according to CAIR lawyer Noe-Lehenbauer. For example, she says, at one point, he was moved into a wing with a white supremacist gang. She says a gang member jumped Harris, who fought back with a makeshift knife and was returned to AdSeg for eight months. He spent most of the 30 months following the attack in the Hole. Howard, who had been transferred to multiple prisons, was also in AdSeg at Algoa Correctional Center when Al Jazeera met with him in January 2023. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to Southeast Correctional Center.

“Some of [my brothers] don’t want to openly admit that they’re Muslim because of fear of retaliation,” says Moore.

Racism and Islamophobia

For David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project, which works to ensure prison compliance with both domestic law and human rights principles, the pepper spray attack and its aftermath point to two intersecting phenomena inside US prisons: a lack of respect and unfamiliarity with non-Christian religions, despite Congress passing a 2000 law to “provide added protection for the religious rights of incarcerated people”, and the longstanding discriminatory treatment of Black prisoners wherever discretion is exercised in the criminal justice system, from police stops to prosecutorial decisions to use of force incidents against prisoners.

According to the MODOC, in 2021, 35.7 percent of Missouri’s male prison population was Black, compared with 11.7 percent of the overall state population. Though racial demographics at individual institutions are not publicly available, based on information provided by prisoners in three different ERDCC housing wings, Black prisoners comprise approximately half the population in those wings.

At ERDCC in 2021, the percentage of Muslims who are Black was about 93 percent, according to data collated by Shelton, the imam.

Prisoner advocates working nationwide and dozens of prisoners from diverse backgrounds throughout Missouri say that there's a toxic and entrenched mix of Islamophobia and racism in the United States prison system.

“Because we’re prisoners, our lives are not valued,” says Ronnie Amiin, 49, a Black Muslim, former prisoner and an advocate with criminal justice reform organisation Missouri CURE. But “add the racial element and it gets even worse.”

A photo of Ronni Amiin walking out of a building.

Ronnie Amiin is a former prisoner and an advocate with a criminal justice reform organisation [Jen Marlowe/Al Jazeera]

A huge gap exists between the religious prisoner protections enshrined in the 2000 law and a nationwide reality often laced with malice and ignorance, according to CAIR lawyer Gadeir Abbas.

For example, CAIR depositions reveal that in 2018 a Washington state prison denied Ramadan meal service to a Muslim prisoner who testified that after he grew weak from not eating, an officer threatened to violently force-feed him during fasting hours. According to another CAIR deposition, in Nevada, an associate warden said they discontinued Islamic studies “because they teach racism, hate and Black supremacy”.

A retired Black, non-Muslim MODOC officer, speaking anonymously, says he witnessed the daily harassment of Muslim prisoners, most of whom were Black. During Ramadan, officers would view meal accommodations as special privileges, rather than for religious beliefs. He says white officers would “go and stir up something every day”. Though he was the shift commander, he would have to call the housing unit three or four times before Muslim prisoners would be let out for their prayer service.

Another aspect of discrimination is that Muslim communities are often treated by prison officials as gangs, according to prisoner advocates.

This attitude is partly explained by racism, Abbas of CAIR says. “There's no question that the belief that Muslims are a gang is in part based on the fact that a lot of the Muslims in prisons are Black,” he explains.

The conception of Muslims in prison as gangs surfaces frequently in CAIR’s litigation according to Abbas, and it is explicitly alleged in the Bonne Terre Seven’s lawsuit.

Rami Nsour, who directs the Tayba Foundation, explains that Muslim prisoners may share superficial similarities with prison gangs - there’s a leader, for example, who may offer rules and punish infractions and the group has rituals and looks after its own. Groups with structures are a reality of prison politics, and at times are useful to prison authorities as leaders can keep order among members and de-escalate situations. Yet, ultimately, Nsour says, imitating prison officials, “You’re gangs. And we’re gonna pepper spray you when you don’t follow the letter of how we see the law.”

'No accountability'

On October 28, 2021, Basham saw Hart nursing an injured hand. He told her he had punched a wall in the shower, she says. Later, it emerged that Hart had beaten up a prisoner. “I never saw the kid, they said he got really injured,” says Basham.

Then, in July 2022, Hart was arrested and faced state charges for possession of child pornography. In December 2022 he was indicted on three federal charges, two for child pornography and the third for assaulting and causing “bodily injury” to the prisoner who “did not pose a threat to anyone”. Via his public defender, Hart declined to comment to Al Jazeera. On May 23, Hart pleaded guilty to all the federal charges. In a statement, the assaulted prisoner wrote that he was left with scars on his head, face and hand, permanent blurred vision in one eye, endured damaged and infected ribs and mental trauma.

On October 4, Hart was sentenced to seven years in prison; he also faces child pornography charges in a county court. In January 2024, Al Jazeera wrote a letter to Hart at the federal prison in which he is jailed, with questions for this story, but received no reply.

Basham calls Hart a “bad seed” and now wonders about his every use of force, including with the Bonne Terre Seven.

Yet, chalking the incident up to one bad person doesn’t address accusations of rampant impunity. “There’s no accountability,” says Holliman. “They could do whatever they want to you.”

Clemons’ complaint about Hart’s excessive force as part of MODOC’s internal grievance process was deemed “resolved” by prison authorities who responded that the “force employed was that minimally necessary to control the incident and maintain good order and security”.

The Missouri Department of Corrections did not respond to questions provided by Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera also made attempts to reach all the officers involved in the incident, via phone, Facebook, text messages and LinkedIn, including the ones who assaulted Stafford outside of 4-House. They either ignored Al Jazeera’s attempts or declined to speak.

'If I don't mention it, that's when they win'


An illustration of a person who is a Muslim prisoner praying.

[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

On June 27, 2023, the state of Missouri filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit. On December 14, 2023, the court ruled that the lawsuit would proceed, though some of the claims were dismissed based on Missouri’s statute of limitations. The trial start date is currently set for July 14, 2025.

The Bonne Terre Seven hope that the lawsuit will lead to policy changes so that, in Moore’s words, “the Muslim community is able to perform our religious obligations without fear”.

“I wish it didn’t happen. Not for those guys, anyway. I’m just sorry that it happened,” Basham says, smoking a cigarette at her living room table, in what is as close to an apology as she offered.

The victims, meanwhile, still feel the after-effects. Howard was released back into the general population after six months in the Hole. Though now back in the general population, according to Noe-Lehenbauer, Harris’s prolonged time in AdSeg had a profound psychological impact on him.

Stafford’s throat hasn’t recovered from the spraying, and a rash on his hands persists from the chemical burn. Stafford’s emotional distress seems to increase with time. “Point blank, they did a lot. I’ll just leave it at that,” he says in a phone interview, his breath laboured. He has flashbacks of being choked by guards, and “every little thing has me crying, sometimes uncontrollably,” he writes in an email on September 7.

Clemons still struggles with his faith - not in God, but in humanity. “The very people that are supposed to be protecting me and helping me become better are the people that are attacking me while I’m trying to be better.”

Yet, speaking out gives him hope. “Every time [the story] is told, it reduces the chances of it happening to someone else,” he says. “If I don’t mention it, then I won’t heal. If I don’t mention it, that’s when they win.”

Heather Holmes contributed research to this report.

Funding for this reporting was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.