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Obataiye-Allah v. Virginia Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

September 28, 2016


          Uhuru' Sekou Obataiye-Allah, Pro Se Plaintiff;

          Margaret Hoehl O'Shea, Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Uhuru' Sekou Obataiye-Allah, a Virginia prison inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq. Obataiye-Allah asserts constitutional challenges to the classification procedures and restrictive living conditions he has faced at Red Onion State Prison (“Red Onion”) that allegedly deny him the ability to participate in group religious services. After review of the record, I conclude that the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment must be granted in part and denied in part.[1]


         Obataiye-Allah is currently serving a term of confinement in the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”); his current expected release date is May 2035.[2] He was transferred on July 16, 2012, from Sussex I State Prison (“Sussex I”) to Red Onion, where he was assigned to the general prison population. While in that housing assignment, Obataiye-Allah was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, a disciplinary infraction for possessing a weapon. In December 2013, officials reassigned Obataiye-Allah to administrative segregation and increased his security level to “Level S” because of the seriousness of his recent infractions.

         Red Onion and its sister facility, Wallens Ridge State Prison (“Wallens Ridge”), house all VDOC “Level S” inmates. Level S is reserved for inmates who must be managed in a segregation setting.[3] Under current policies, once a VDOC inmate is classified as Level S, officials transfer him to one of these facilities, where he may participate in the Segregation Reduction Step-Down Program designed to help him progress in stages toward a return to the general prison population. (Operating Procedure (“OP”) 830.A, at 10-35, ECF No. 34-1.) This OP became effective on February 18, 2013, with the stated purpose to provide “established procedures for incentive based offender management which will create a pathway for offenders to step-down from Security level S to lower security levels in a manner that maintains public, staff and offender safety.” (OP 830.A(I).) The step-down program is goal-oriented: when inmates exhibit positive behaviors, such as anger management and respect, and succeed in completing the established goals in each stage of the procedure, they are rewarded by moving to the next step and earning its additional privileges.

         As described in OP 830.A(III), each newly classified Level S inmate is assessed and assigned to the appropriate privilege level within Level S: intensive management (“IM”), special management (“SM”), or the reentry unit (reserved for inmates within two years of release). An inmate is assigned to IM status if evaluators determine that he has “the potential for extreme and/or deadly violence, ” as indicated by a history of violent disciplinary infractions against staff or other inmates, or an “extensive criminal history and lifestyle that has escalated so that extreme/deadly violence has become a behavior characteristic.” (OP 830.A(III).) The policy expressly states that “[t]he potential for extreme or deadly violence is not eliminated despite the offender's daily institutional adjustment even when providing more than a year of compliant, polite, and cooperative behavior and attitude.” (Id.)

         Alternatively, an inmate may be placed in IM status because of his “routinely disruptive and threatening pattern of behavior and attitude” or because he is “incarcerated for a notorious crime that puts [him] at risk from other offenders.” (Id.) On the other hand, an inmate is assigned to SM status if evaluators find that he has a history of “repeated disruptive behavior at lower level facilities, . . . fighting with staff or offenders, and/or violent resistance” that harmed staff or other inmates, but “without the intent to invoke serious harm, . . . kill, or [cause] serious damage to the facility.” (Id.)

         Inmates are further sub-classified under OP 830.A as follows, starting with IM-0, the most restrictive status, and ending with the general population, the least restrictive:

Intensive Management (IM):
Special Management (SM):
Step-Down-Level VI General Population
Structured Living-Phase 1 and Phase 2
Security Level V General Population

         The step-down program in OP 830.A is a so-called cognitive program that includes pro-social goals and requires the inmate to complete a workbook set called the Challenge Series, remain infraction free, meet responsible behavior goals, and participate in self-improvement and education programs. When an inmate meets the goals designated for a step, he may be advanced to the next step and receive the additional privileges assigned to it.

         All Level S inmates in the IM and SM categories are housed in single cells and, until they reach the SM-SL6 stage, are restrained in handcuffs and shackles and escorted by two officers whenever they leave their cells. Per policy, they receive meals in their cells (the same types of meals that inmates in general population units receive), receive not less than three showers per week, and have out-of-cell recreation for one hour, five days per week. These inmates generally can have two twenty-minute phone calls per month, one one-hour, non-contact visit per week, limited use of radio and television, and limited commissary purchases. They can possess at least two library books per week, receive and send mail, and possess legal and religious materials. The privileges an IM inmate may earn under OP 830.A at IM-1 and IM-2 include more library books per week, more commissary purchases, more non-contact visits or telephone calls, increased TV time and channels, and even limited job possibilities. An inmate progressing to SM-1 or SM-2 can earn even greater privileges.

         IM or SM inmates who do not meet the standards for discipline, responsible behavior, self-improvement, and programming can be moved back to a lower step. Some inmates assigned to a lower step may be required to start over with the Challenge Series; they must then work with treatment staff to complete its exercises again to achieve positive changes in thought processes and social skills. An inmate's refusal to participate in the step-down program may also be grounds for a reduction in his step assignment back to IM-0 or SM-0, where he may remain, stripped of the privileges he had earned in the higher step, until he chooses to participate.

         Members of the Unit Management Team, a multi-disciplinary group of staff who work in the housing units, track and rate each inmate's progress toward the goals of his assigned step. They rate his behavior every week as poor, acceptable, or good in each of several categories, such as personal hygiene, standing for count, and respect. Counselors rate the inmate's program participation every week as incomplete, complete, or positive effort. Officers in each of these groups are encouraged to communicate with inmates about these ratings - to acknowledge positive performance and motivate improvement where needed. (OP 830.A(IV)(D).)

         When an inmate completes the Challenge Series curriculum and evaluators deem that he has achieved its behavioral goals in SM-2, he is stepped down in security level from Level S to SM-SL6. (OP 830.A(IV)(F).) At this point, officials assess each inmate and assign him to one of three SL6 program pods geared to safely reintroduce him into a social environment to interact with other inmates and test his readiness for possible transfer to Level V and, eventually, to other non-segregation settings. (Id.)

         Inmates in the SL6 step-down pod may progress through two phases.[4] In SL6 Phase 1, they are still in single cells, but they are permitted to leave their cells unrestrained for movement to the shower and recreation and, gradually, to participate in the Thinking for a Change curriculum with other inmates in groups of up to fifteen participants. (Id.) Inmates in SL6 Phase 2 are double-celled and unrestrained for showers and recreation, have outside recreation with other inmates for an hour, twice a week, and can walk to meals with other inmates to eat their meals together in the dining hall.

         The IM pathway under OP 830.A is different than the SM pathway. If an inmate reaches IM-2 status, and officials determine that he cannot progress to the SM steps toward classification to the SL6 pods, he can become eligible for assignment to the lowest security level for an IM status inmate: Level 6-IM, also known as the Closed Pod. The Closed Pod is expressly designed “to create an opportunity for an increased quality of life for offenders possibly facing a long term in high security.”[5] (OP 830.A(IV)(G)(1).) Closed Pod inmates continue to have single-celled housing, segregated showers and recreation areas, and out-of-cell restraints, shackles, and dual escorts. Closed Pod inmates can, however, earn more privileges than any other group of IM inmates, such as more in-pod job assignments, more programming in-cell and in small groups in secure chairs, video visitation, and longer in-person visitation.

         In addition to the weekly progress ratings by the Unit Management Team, OP 830.A(IV)(K)(5) requires that all segregation inmates, including those participating in the step-down program, be routinely reviewed by the Institutional Classification Authority (“ICA”). According to OP 830.A, Appendices F and G, Level S inmates are to receive an ICA review at least every ninety days. Among other things, the ICA reviews and acts on recommendations for step increases or reductions.

         In addition to Unit Management Team review of an inmate's classification status, certain classification decisions are also reviewed by a Dual Treatment Team made up of officials from both Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, by the wardens of the two institutions, or by the VDOC regional operations chief. In addition to this multi-level review scheme, according to OP 830.A(IV)(K)(1)(a), “[a] team external to [Red Onion and Wallens Ridge] will perform an annual review of each [Level S] offender's case.” This review includes a reassessment of whether the inmate continues to meet the criteria for the IM or SM path to which he has been assigned. According to OP 830.1(IV)(G)(2), which is available online, [6] all classification decisions may be appealed through the Offender Grievance Procedure.

         In December 2013, Obataiye-Allah was assigned to Level S at Red Onion; in February 2014, he was transferred to Sussex I for court proceedings. The Sussex I ICA conducted a review of his status and assigned him to administrative segregation; the report of that review notes Obataiye-Allah's statement that “I fear for my safety at [Red Onion]. They have been retaliating against me.” (Hamilton Aff. Ex. 1, Enclosure G, at 58, ECF No. 34-1.) Obataiye-Allah was returned to Red Onion in March 2014.

         On March 24, 2014, a Red Onion ICA reviewed Obataiye-Allah's status and approved him for assignment to SM-0. The report of this review notes Obataiye-Allah's statement that “Someone is gonna answer for this shit and all my shit that's gone.” (Id. Enclosure I, at 62, ECF No. 34-1.)

         In September 2015, authorities in Sussex County, Virginia, initiated criminal proceedings against Obataiye-Allah (under his former name, Johnathan Talbert) for gang participation, solicitation to commit murder, solicitation to commit assault, and two counts of solicitation to assault a corrections officer. See Commonwealth v. Talbert, CR15-000-209 through -213.[7] According to the public court records, the offenses occurred on March 7, 2014. A grand jury returned an ...

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