Prisoners' Rights Under Law - First Amendment Cases
religious court officials inmates
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
In Procunier v. Martinez (416 U.S. 396, 1973) the Supreme Court ruled that prison officials cannot censor inmate correspondence unless they:
show that a regulation authorizing mail censorship furthers one or more of the substantial governmental interests of security, order, and rehabilitation. Second, the limitation of First Amendment freedom must be no greater than is necessary or essential to the protection of the particular governmental interest involved.
Prison officials can refuse to send letters that detail escape plans or encoded messages but cannot censor inmate correspondence simply to "eliminate unflattering or unwelcome opinions or factually inaccurate statements." Because prisoners retain rights, when "a prison regulation or practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights."
However, the Court recognized that it was "ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration." Running a prison takes expertise and planning, all of which, said the Court, is part of the responsibility of the legislative and executive branches. The task of the judiciary, however, is to establish a standard of review for prisoners' constitutional claims that is responsive to both the need to protect inmates' rights and the policy of judicial restraint.
The Court ruled in 1974 (Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817) that federal prison officials could prohibit inmates from having face-to-face media interviews. The Court reasoned that judgments regarding prison security "are peculiarly within the province and professional expertise of corrections officials, and in the absence of substantial evidence in the record to indicate that the officials have exaggerated their response to these considerations, courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgement in such matters." Prisoners had other means by which to communicate with the media.
In 1985, in Nolan v. Fitzpatrick (451 F. 2d 545), the First Circuit Court ruled that inmates had the right to correspond with newspapers. The prisoners were limited only in that they could not write about escape plans or include contraband material in their letters.
The Missouri Division of Corrections permitted correspondence between immediate family members who were inmates at different institutions and between inmates writing about legal matters, but allowed other inmate correspondence only if each prisoner's "classification/treatment team" thought it was in the best interests of the parties. Another Missouri regulation permitted an inmate to marry only with the superintendent's permission, which can be given only when there were "compelling reasons" to do so, such as a pregnancy. In Turner v. Safley (482 U.S. 78, 1987) the Supreme Court found the first regulation constitutional and the second one unconstitutional.
The Court held that the "constitutional right of prisoners to marry is impermissibly burdened by the Missouri marriage regulation." The Supreme Court had ruled earlier that prisoners had a constitutionally protected right to marry (Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 1977), subject to restrictions due to incarceration such as time and place and prior approval of a warden. However, the Missouri regulation practically banned all marriages.
The findings in Turner v. Safley have become a guide for prison regulations in the United States. The High Court observed that:
When a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.… First, there must be a "valid, rational connection" between the prison regulation and the legitimate government interest put forward to justify it. … Moreover, the government objective must be a legitimate and neutral one. … A second factor relevant in determining the reasonableness of a prison restriction … is whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates. A third consideration is the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally.
While inmates retain their First Amendment freedom to practice their religions, the courts have upheld restrictions on religious freedom when corrections departments need to maintain security, when economic considerations are involved, and when the regulation is reasonable.
The District of Columbia jail allowed, at public expense, interdenominational services, as well as services by Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Unitarians, the Salvation Army, and other religious groups. Public funds paid for Protestant and Catholic chaplains and for religious medals. An honorarium was paid to a rabbi when needed.
Several times in 1959 a group of Muslims requested permission to hold religious services. The Director of Corrections of the District of Columbia, Donald Clemmer, refused the requests because he believed that "Muslims teach racial hatred." The director also confiscated a religious medal from the petitioner, William Fulwood, because Clemmer deemed the medal was symbolic of a doctrine of hate and wearing it would promote racial tension in the prison. The jail administration also did not allow Fulwood to correspond with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Black Muslims, or subscribe to the Los Angeles Herald Dispatch because it carried a column by Muhammad.
In 1962 the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia in Fulwood v. Clemmer (206 F. Supp 370) ruled that, by allowing some religious groups to hold religious services and by conducting such services at public expense while denying that right to Muslims, the jail officials had discriminated against the Muslim inmates. These acts violated the "Order of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia No. 6514-B, dated Nov. 25, 1953, which requires prison officials to make facilities available without regard to race or religion."
The court held the same opinion on the distribution and wearing of religious medals. However, on the issue of correspondence and the newspaper subscription, the court stated that the judiciary "lacked general supervisory powers over prisons, and in absence of … abuse of discretion by prison officials, courts should not interfere."
In 1972 in Cruz v. Beto (405 U.S. 319), Fred A. Cruz, a Buddhist serving in a Texas prison, claimed that while other prisoners were allowed use of the prison chapel, officials refused Buddhists the right to hold religious services. Cruz was placed in solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water for two weeks for sharing religious materials with other prisoners.
The Supreme Court stated that prison officials are "accorded latitude in the administration of prison affairs, and prisoners necessarily are subject to appropriate rules and regulations." However, prisoners have the right to petition the government for "redress of grievances," and the federal courts, while they do not sit to supervise prisons, must "enforce constitutional rights of all 'persons,' including prisoners." The Court concluded that "reasonable opportunities must be afforded to all prisoners to exercise the religious freedom guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments without fear of penalty."
A five-to-four split Supreme Court in O'Lone v. Shabazz (482 U.S. 340, 1987) declared that "state prison officials acted in a reasonable manner" and were not violating First Amendment freedoms when they did not allow inmates who were members of the Islamic faith to attend religious services held on Friday afternoons. "Prison policies were related to legitimate security and rehabilitative concerns, alternative means of exercising religious faith with respect to other practices were available, and placing Islamic prisoners into work groups so as to permit them to exercise religious rights would have adverse impact" on the running of the prison.
In the opinion of the four dissenters, however, when:
exercise of the asserted right is not presumptively dangerous … and where the prison has completely deprived an inmate of that right, then prison officials must show that "a particular restriction is necessary to further an important governmental interest." The prison in this case has completely prevented respondent inmates from attending the central religious service of their Moslem faith.
The State has neither demonstrated that the restriction is necessary to further an important objective nor proved that less extreme measures may not serve its purpose.… If a Catholic prisoner were prevented from attending Mass on Sunday, few would regard that deprivation as anything but absolute, even if the prisoner were afforded other opportunities to pray, to discuss the Catholic faith with others, and even to avoid eating meat on Friday if there were a preference.
Cases in lower courts have also dealt with religious food preferences, the wearing of religious jewelry, religious hairstyles and dress, and compulsory attendance in programs that use religious thematics. For instance, courts have ordered pork-free diets for groups whose religion forbids them from eating pork, although they must make up a significant portion of the inmate population. There are also limits to what a prison administrator is reasonably expected to do. In New York the federal court upheld the prison's refusal to meet the food requirements of Rastafarians, a religion of Jamaican origin (Benjamin v. Coughlin, 708 F. Suppl. 570, 1989) because the complex requirements would have burdened the prison administratively and financially. Depending on the sect of the religion, the group wanted no meats, no canned foods or dairy products, no foods grown with inorganic pesticides or fertilizers, and foods cooked in natural materials, such as clay pots.
In 1996 the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that Wisconsin could not prohibit the wearing of religious jewelry (Sasnett v. Sullivan, 91 F.3d 1018), according to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Prison officials had claimed that such jewels could be used as weapons but had permitted the use of rosary beads, which, the Circuit held, could be used in strangling others. The state was held to be inconsistent.
The courts themselves can be inconsistent, as well. Michael G. Gallahan, a Cherokee, practiced his religious beliefs, including having worn long hair since the age of five. Tenets of his religion recognize hair as a "sense organ" and taught that loss of hair was equated to losing part of the body. Prison officials had established hair-length regulations because of the belief that long hair was a convenient place for hiding weapons, could obscure facial identification, and could cause sanitary problems.
In Gallahan v. Hollyfield (516 F. 2d 1004, 1981) a U.S. District Court in Virginia ruled that "a prisoner is not stripped of all rights on incarceration; specifically he retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as a prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system." The judges found that Gallahan "established a sincere belief in his religion" and that the state's reasons were "insufficient" to enforce the hair-length regulation, especially since Gallahan had agreed to wear his hair tied back in a ponytail.
However, in 1992 the appellate court upheld haircut rules in a case involving a Rastafarian hairstyle (Scott v. Mississippi Department of Corrections, 961 F. 2d 77) arguing that the "loss of absolute freedom of religious expression is but one sacrifice required by incarceration."
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Abdullah v. Kinnison (769 F. 2d 345, 1985), ruled that a prison directive requiring practicing Muslims to keep white prayer robes in the institutional chapel rather than in cells was justified by security reasons and did not violate the First Amendment.
In Rust v. Clarke, prisoners in the Nebraska prison system who practiced Asatru, an ancient religion of Northern Europe that is sometimes called Wotanism, charged that it was necessary for each of them to have certain items—including a small stone altar, a cauldron, and a drinking horn—in order to practice their religion in prison. They also requested the right to build sacred fires during ceremonial occasions. In 1995 the Eighth Circuit Court ruled against the plaintiffs. According to the National Prison Kindred Alliance, an organization formed to assist Asatru members in prison or recently released, seventeen states have rewritten their policies to accommodate the practice of Asatru in prison.
In 1996 the New York Court of Appeals ruled on Griffin v. Coughlin (NY CtApp, No 73), a case involving twelve-step programs. As a precondition to his continued participation in a family reunion program, David Griffin had been required to participate in a substance abuse program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which makes references to "God" and a "Higher Power." He claimed that the requirement to participate in such a program violated his right to practice atheism under the First Amendment. The court ruled that the prison could not compel an inmate to attend a substance abuse program in which references to "God" and a "Higher Power" were made. The court concluded that the program violated the Establishment clause of the Constitution and "the state has exercised coercive power to advance religion by denying benefits of eligibility for the family reunion problem to atheist and agnostic inmates who object and refuse to participate in religious activity."
The dissenters thought that, although the twelve-step program may be perceived as:
somewhat religious, [it] remains overwhelmingly secular in philosophy, objective, and operation.… The inmate was not compelled to participate in the … program. He voluntarily chose the course of action that placed his agnosticism and nonbeliefs at risk because he wished to receive something he is not unqualifiably entitled to from the state.
In September 2000 the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The act primarily limits the ability of local governments to use zoning laws against religious institutions. It also asserts the right of prisoners to practice their religion and restricts prison authorities from denying them whatever items they may reasonably need to do so. In October 2004 the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the law and to render a decision in the summer of 2005.