Direct and indirect discrimination — halal meat in prison

A Muslim prisoner was given the same general food as other prisoners, even though he had informed the prison on his arrival that he only ate meat that was halal. After ten months at the prison (Wolston) he made a written request for halal meat but his request was declined. He continued efforts to obtain halal meat, and eventually he was provided with tinned halal meat. The tinned meat was unsatisfactory so he stopped eating it, and he kept trying to obtain fresh halal meat. After two and a half years, he was transferred to a lower security prison (Palen Creek) where prisoners prepared meals under supervision for each prisoner group (unit). He was again given the general food of other prisoners. After three months he met with the food supervisor who initially refused his request for fresh halal meat. Instead, it was agreed he would be given food supplements such as eggs, cheese, nuts etc. Eventually the prisoner was given fresh halal meat that he cooked in the prisoner unit for the rest of his time in prison.

Because of the time limit for making a complaint under the Anti-Discrimination Act, the complaint was limited to what happened in the period of 12 months before the man complained to the Anti-Discrimination Commission. This period was the last month that the man was at Wolston, and the time at Palen Creek until he was given fresh halal meat (approximately 14 months).

The tribunal found that when the prison provided the man with the same food as the general prison population, it imposed a term on him that he eat the general diet provided to prisoners. He could not comply with that term because of his religion.

In considering whether the term was reasonable, the tribunal had to weigh the nature and extent of the discriminatory effect of the term against the reasons for the term, and consider all other circumstances, including the consequences of not complying, costs of alternate terms, and the financial circumstances of the prison. The tribunal noted that the test of reasonableness is an objective one, less demanding that a test of necessity, but more demanding that a test of convenience. The onus was on the prison to prove that the term was reasonable.

The tribunal found that the prison was able to cater for prisoner diets for numerous other medical and cultural reasons, and that the prison was able to meet the cost of supplying fresh halal meat. The fact that the man was serving a long sentence was relevant because providing supplements is a temporary measure.

The tribunal concluded that imposing the term that the man eat general prison fare during the first three months at Palen Creek was not reasonable, and there was indirect discrimination within the meaning of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

For the periods at Wolston and Palen Creek when the man received a different diet, he was treated differently because of his religion, so the correct approach was to analyse what went on in terms of the definition of direct discrimination.

The tribunal found the hypothetical person for the purpose of comparison was a prisoner on the standard prison diet, rather than a vegetarian or a diabetic prisoner. The man was not a vegetarian and his normal diet included meat.

The tribunal found that during the last month at Wolston and 11 months at Palen Creek, the provision of a vegetarian diet with supplements and tinned halal meat was less favourable treatment of the man within the meaning of direct discrimination under the Anti-Discrimination Act. Although prisoners would find their meals unpalatable from time to time, the man received substantially more unpalatable meals because he was put on a vegetarian diet when he was not a vegetarian. He also did not always receive the supplements he was supposed to receive. The tribunal found he regularly and frequently experienced difficulty with the supply and content of his meals.

The tribunal awarded the man compensation of $2,000. The small award of compensation was because of the limited period to which the complaint related.

The tribunal recognised that the principle of provision of halal meat to prisoners was significant. By the time of the hearing of this complaint, all Muslim prisoners in Queensland gaols who requested halal meat were being provided with fresh halal meat.

Mahommed v State of Queensland [2006] QADT 21 (24 May 2006).