Muslim woman says Metro Corrections violated her civil rights by forcing removal of hijab for mug shot

Photo via Metro Department of Corrections website

A Muslim woman who was arrested during an immigration protest this summer is asserting that city officials violated her civil rights by forcing her to remove her hijab headscarf for a mug shot, which was then posted on the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections website.

On Nov. 7, the attorney for Clara Ruplinger sent a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer, Corrections Director Mark Bolton and LMPD Chief Steve Conrad, informing them that her client’s “civil rights were blatantly disregarded during her incarceration” by city officials, adding that litigation could be filed if they don’t propose a resolution to the matter in the coming weeks.

Attorney Soha Saiyed of the Abney Law Office stated in the letter that her client was one of the “Heyburn Nine” who were arrested on July 26 when they chained themselves together to block the elevators 11 floors below a federal immigration court, in protest of the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border.

She stated that Ruplinger, a practicing Muslim who wears a hijab, was repeatedly told by at least four booking officers to take off her headscarf in front of other inmates and staff to take her photograph, which was later made public and shared by media covering the arrests.

Stating that her client felt “intimidated, humiliated and embarrassed by her treatment,” Saiyed added that “Metro’s demand that Ms. Ruplinger remove her scarf in an inmate booking room, surrounded by others, was inappropriate and illegal, as was its publication of her photo without a headscarf.”

Clara Ruplinger | Photo provided by her attorney

To resolve the matter, Saiyed wrote that in addition to being willing to “fairly and appropriately compensate” Ruplinger, the city must “train LMPD and LMDC officers, and enact appropriate policies for the protection of religious people.” She asked for the city to “negotiate a pre-litigation resolution to this matter,” but added that if she received no response to the letter by Nov. 21, “we will be forced to pursue any and all remedies available” to her client.

“It is our belief that the training of employees will protect others’ rights, even if Ms. Ruplinger cannot benefit from a prospective training,” wrote Saiyed. “A training or series of trainings will help educate Metro employees on issues that the Mayor has publicly announced to be important to its core values.”

Saiyed told Insider Louisville that as of Friday afternoon, no one in the Fischer administration had contacted her yet. She did file an open records request for the city’s policies and procedures on booking and mug shots, but what she received was heavily redacted, she said, and “it’s not really clear what if any policy there is specifically directed at religious people and any sort of religious dress and how that’s accommodated.”

“I would hope that they respond and show some willingness to resolve the issue, and my client wants to help future people on this issue,” said Saiyed.

Mayor Fischer’s spokeswoman Jean Porter chose not reply to Insider’s question asking what his administration’s policy is for female inmates who wear a hijab, or if he would respond to the letter of Ruplinger’s attorney. LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said that mug shots are entirely under the purview of Metro Corrections.

Metro Corrections Director Bolton did not return a phone message from Insider, and spokesman Steve Durham said that after consulting with the Jefferson County Attorney’s office, “I’m just not in a position to comment” on the department’s policy on Muslim inmates wearing a hijab.

“We’re not going to make any comment on the current policy or the particular letter that was sent indicating that there’s a potential claim to be filed on this action,” said Durham.

Durham did send Insider a copy of the department’s policies regarding booking photos, but it was missing pages, heavily redacted and made no reference to religion, religious clothing or civil rights.

Unredacted portions of the corrections policy note that booking officers are to “take the inmate’s photograph, including pictures of any scars, marks and/or tattoos without compromising the inmate’s privacy (i.e., revealing private areas).” Officers are also responsible for documenting inmates’ eye color and skin tone.

Saiyed said that while she doesn’t know of any other case in Kentucky involving prison officials forcing an inmate to remove her hijab, three plaintiffs in New York City reached a settlement with the city earlier this year in which each were paid $60,000 for such treatment.

Following the filing of their lawsuit last year, NYPD sent out new directives for officers in which Muslim inmates could have their photograph taken in a private room without their head covering by an officer of the same gender, but two more women filed a federal class-action lawsuit in March, asserting that male officers also forced them to remove their hijab for a mug shot last year.

In an interview with Insider Louisville, Ruplinger said that she finally relented to multiple officers’ demands to take off her hijab in the packed booking room for her mug shot. “I didn’t feel like I had any option to fight, right then and there. Which is completely unacceptable. They never should have asked me in the first place.”

Ruplinger said she recently converted to Islam and began wearing her hijab last year, noting that after the struggle and criticism she has received from family and some of her friends over that decision, “to have to take it off under those circumstances was very degrading … being made to feel like that, being exposed like that in a place where it already didn’t feel safe.”

She says that corrections officers told her that their policy is that “any headgear needs to be taken” to get her “proper head dimensions.” Ruplinder added that “they mentioned something about religious exemptions, but they said that could only happen during prayer time or your church setting, whatever that is … but I told them this is a religious requirement 24/7.”

Once she got home from jail, she found out that even though officers had taken one photograph of her wearing a hijab, corrections had posted the mug shot of her without it, which was “crushing.”

“There are pictures of me without my hijab online, but those are from before I converted, before I began wearing my hijab,” said Ruplinger. “And I’ve been so careful about making sure that my hijab stays on and that I don’t post pictures and things like that, and then this all comes tumbling down and is forced on me.”

Ruplinger noted that Mayor Fischer often touts his core values of compassion, diversity and tolerance, but called her treatment by his administration and his lack of apparent concern “disgusting.”

“You have people in office that will go out and use diversity for photo ops, but when it comes to issues that are actually affecting these people that they use as props for their political campaigns, they’re nowhere to be seen,” said Ruplinger.

She added that she is going public with her story to prevent other Muslim women from going through the same kind of treatment in Louisville, despite her belief that doing so could make her a target.

“Coming out like this could potentially be dangerous for me and those around me because of the environment that we live in, where Muslim women are attacked,” said Ruplinger. “But it’s really important that people understand that we can’t let this happen. If it happens to me, it’s going to happen to someone else, and it could be worse for them.”

Ruplinger and the rest of the Heyburn Nine still face local and federal charges for blocking and interfering with the federal immigration court.