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Rountree v. Clarke

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

February 16, 2017

HAROLD CLARKE, ET AL., Defendant(s).


          Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge.

         Piper A. Rountree, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5. She contends that prison officials have refused to approve yoga mats as personal faith objects so she can possess and use such a mat to practice yoga in her cell according to her Buddhist religious beliefs. After review of the record, the court concludes that the defendants are entitled to summary judgment.


         Rountree is incarcerated at Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women ("FCCW"). In the second amended complaint (hereinafter "complaint"), [1] She states that even before her incarceration, she became an adherent of Buddhism and took Dharma vows, including a vow to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise, walking, and practicing yoga. Rountree asserts:

Generally, the Buddhist practice strongly emphasizes maintaining a regimen that is daily in nature. The daily practices include meditating, studying, living, and practicing the Buddhists' tenets, and practicing yoga. For Buddhists, it is of paramount importance that these practices are adhered to on a daily rather than weekly or sporadic basis. Since the point of the practices is to create or maintain an optimally healthy mindset, physical state, and habits, only daily and repeated practice will create and maintain the optimal health and mindset sought....
Part of [Rountree's] sincerely held religious beliefs include[s] this daily practice of the yoga asanas. Asanas are the physical posture of yoga taken for the spiritual and meditative purpose. This practice usually takes a total of 2 hours to perform, at intervals or in a continuous, focused meditative session.

(Compl. 9, ECF No. 39) (emphasis in original). Rountree contends that yoga mats are necessary for the safe and correct practice of yoga.

The non-slip, cushioned, unique design of . . . yoga mats allow[s] silent ease of often rapid flowing moves. Where the Buddhist's practice also includes extended seated meditation, doubled and rolled-up yoga mats [as a substitute for Buddhist meditation cushions called zafus] allow for positioning the body in the correct [upright] posture without pain.


         Rountree complains that the VDOC will not allow her to possess a yoga mat in her own cell to perform daily yoga maneuvers and that doing yoga exercises and mediation poses without a yoga mat has caused her pain and injuries. Rountree asserts that she cannot properly practice her Buddhist beliefs.

Without daily use of the yoga mat, she cannot perform the complete set of yoga postures, cannot hold correct alignment without severe pain and injury, and cannot practice or maintain[ ] the required breath and mind focus or control. Furthermore, without the silenced cushioning, the practice tends to become a point of noisy contention between roommates, leading to a violation of her first Dharma vow. Without such yoga mat for meditation, she's forced to sit in either a crunched position on her bed (because of overhead obstructions), or she faces violating sanitary standards and prison ordinances for using her blankets on the floor. Extensive prostrations have become painful and noisy without the cushioning.

(Compl. 13.)

         Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC") Operating Procedures require that the Faith Review Committee ("FRC") must review and approve any property item requested for an inmate's religious practices. The FRC is a panel of representative VDOC staff who receive referrals from Facility Unit Heads on requested faith property and practices, and determine whether a requested property item, practice, or accommodation should or should not be approved in accordance with VDOC procedures and operational concerns. The stated purpose of this centralized approval of inmate faith items is to maintain "consistency for offender accommodation of religious property and practices" throughout the VDOC. OP 841.3(IV)(D). Attachment 5 of OP 841.3 lists individual faith items already approved by the FRC for an inmate to possess in cell for religious practices. To request any exception to the operating procedure, an inmate must complete a "Request for Approval of Faith Object" form through the Facility Unit Head, to the FRC for review. All FRC decisions must also be reviewed and approved by the Chief of Corrections Operations and the Corrections Operations Administrator before implementation.

         The FRC list of approved faith items is particularized. For example, the FRC reviewed prayer rugs, found them to be widely recognized as necessary and integral to the practice of certain religions, and approved them for addition to the list of individual faith property items. An approved prayer rug maybe no larger than 48" x 30" and must normally be stored in the inmate's locker when not in use for religious observance. Rountree possesses an approved prayer rug in her cell.[2]

         The FRC also reviewed yoga mats and determined that they were not considered required articles of faith in the practice of Buddhism. Nevertheless, the FRC approved "integral yoga mats" as "communal property" to be "stored in recreation area" for inmates to use in activities, including religious practice and rituals. OP 841.3, Attach. 5. The FRC did not approve yoga mats for individual inmate possession in cell because of storage, sanitation, and security concerns.

         The defendants present the affidavit of Elisabeth Thornton, the former Corrections Operation Administrator for the VDOC, identifying several security and safety concerns posed by allowing an inmate to possess a yoga mat in cell. An inmate could use a yoga mat (also known as a sticky mat) to better maintain footing and balance when physically resisting security staff, to block OC spray, to hinder a canine, and to act as a buffer between the inmate and security staff during an incident. An inmate could use a yoga mat to hide contraband easily within the folds, thus slowing staffs search ability and creating a safety concern for inmates and staff. A standard yoga mat (68" x 24")[3]rolled up, could function as a two-foot-long club of 4" to 5" in diameter and be used as a weapon. Also, if one inmate were allowed to use a yoga mat in cell, it would cover a majority of the shared space and interfere with a cell mate's access to the bunk area, possibly leading to arguments or physical altercations between cell mates. Finally, yoga mats can stick to the floors if not cleaned regularly. They are porous and hold sweat, oils, and dead skin from users.

         Because of these security and sanitation concerns, the FRC did not approve yoga mats as individual faith objects, and Rountree may not possess and store a yoga mat in her cell. She can and does check out a ...

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