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Burke v. Clarke

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

March 26, 2019

RANDY BURKE, Plaintiff
v.
HAROLD CLARKE, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Pamela Meade Sargent, United States Magistrate Judge

         The plaintiff, Randy Burke, (“Burke”), an inmate incarcerated at Wallens Ridge State Prison, (“Wallens Ridge”), and 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”), against the defendants, all of whom are employees of the Virginia Department of Corrections, (“VDOC”). Burke, who states he is of the Rastafarian faith, alleges that, while he was incarcerated at Wallens Ridge in the Violators Housing Unit, (“VHU”), the defendants violated his rights under the Fourteenth and First Amendments and RLUIPA by denying him access to Rastafarian group services, religious items and special holiday meals for holy days and by not affording Virgin Island inmates the same education and vocational programming as inmates from Virginia. Burke seeks declaratory and injunctive relief and compensatory and punitive damages.

         By Memorandum Opinion and Order entered March 27, 2018, (Docket Item Nos. 40, 41), Senior District Judge Jackson L. Kiser granted the defendants summary judgment on all but the following of Burke's claims:

1. Burke's claim that the defendants violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA because he was denied access to Rastafarian group services, religious items and special holiday meals for holy days;
2. Burke's claim that the defendants violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because he was denied access to Rastafarian group services, religious items and special holiday meals for holy days when these were provided to Muslim inmates; and
3. Burke's claim that the defendants violated his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because, as a Virgin Islands inmate, he was not provided the same educational and vocational programming as inmates from Virginia.

         These claims are before the court on the defendants' Motion For Summary Judgment, (Docket Item No. 44) (“Motion”), and the plaintiff's response in opposition, (Docket Item No. 51). None of the parties has requested a hearing on the Motion, making it ripe for disposition.

         I. Facts

         Burke, in his verified Complaint, stated that he is a Virgin Island inmate of the Rastafarian faith housed by the VDOC at Wallens Ridge since May 30, 2014. Burke stated that, since June 26, 2014, he has been housed in the VHU, a general population unit for prisoners who refuse to comply with the VDOC's grooming policy. Burke stated that he was allowed to participate in “a make shift Rastafarian religious service, ” beginning January 15, 2015. Burke stated that no Rastafarian religious service items or high priest was provided for this group service.

         Burke stated that he requested Rastafarian religious service items by Offender Request form filed with the Chaplain on April 28, 2016. On this Offender Request form, Burke requested red, yellow and green Rastafarian prayer rugs, Lion of Judah flags, a portrait or poster of King Haile Selassie, drums, a Holy Piby Bible, incense and a red, yellow and green knit hat for use in Rastafarian services. (Docket Item No. 1-1 at 29.) Burke also requested Rastafarian holy day meals on July 23 and November 2. The Chaplain responded, “Don't have any of this.” Burke also attached a May 5, 2016, Informal Complaint he filed with the Chaplain. (Docket Item No. 1-1 at 30.) On the form, Burke, again, requested religious service items, such as prayer rugs, Lion of Judah flags, portraits or posters of King Haile Selassie, drums, a Holy Piby Bible, incense and a knit hat. He also wrote that he had requested Rastafarian holy day meals, but was denied. The Chaplain wrote in response, “I do not have. All items I have are donated.” In an Affidavit attached to his Complaint, (Docket Item No. 1-2 at 1), Burke stated that, on June 26, 2014, he requested to attend Rastafarian religious group services, and his request was denied.

         Burke also attached a copy of a VDOC Master Religious Calendar. (Docket Item No. 1-1 at 37-39.) This Calendar shows that the VDOC recognizes July 23 and November 2 as Rastafarian holy days with no special dietary considerations for the general prison population. Burke also attached a copy of a Wallens Ridge Personal Property Menu, listing items that can be purchased from the commissary. (Docket Item No. 1-1 at 40-42.) On this Menu, Burke has circled where the commissary offers black and white kufis, prayer rugs and fragrant oils for sale to inmates.

         Burke also attached the affidavits of several other inmates to his Complaint. In his Affidavit, (Docket Item No. 1-2 at 7-8), Ras-Talawa Tafari stated that he had requested to participate in a vocational program course on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, (“OSHA”). Tafari said that his request was returned to him with a statement from the Treatment Department that he was not able to participate in any existing vocational programs due to his housing assignment in the VHU. Burke also provided an Affidavit from Wallens Ridge inmate Dartagnan Simmons, who stated that he practiced the Rastafarian faith and was allowed to attend group religious services held every Thursday. (Docket Item No. 1-2 at 13.)

         Burke attached an Affidavit from inmate Daryl Blyden to his Complaint. (Docket Item No. 1-3 at 1.) In this Affidavit, Blyden stated that he was transferred to the VHU at Wallens Ridge on June 6, 2014, where he requested educational and vocational programs, as well as group religious services. Blyden said that all inmates housed in the VHU were “automatically denied access” to vocational programs and group religious services. Burke also attached an Affidavit from inmate Khaeil Thompson, (Docket Item No. 1-3 at 2.) Thompson stated that his religion was Rastafarian. He said that he was deprived of the ability to work in some prison positions, to attend educational and vocational programs and to attend religious services. He also said that he was deprived of unspecified “religious items.” Burke also provided a Declaration from inmate Habakkuk E. Ben Yowel. (Docket Item No. 1-3 at 3-9.) Yowel stated that, beginning February 16, 2016, Defendant Lt. King explained that no congregational religious services or educational or vocational programs would be provided to inmates held in Phase 1 of the VHU. He stated that Wallens Ridge did not allow Rastafarians to observe their holy days and feast days as Jewish, Muslims and other religious inmates are allowed to do. In particular, Yowel stated that Rastafarians were not allowed to celebrate H.I.M. Selassie's birthday on July 23 or the anniversary of his coronation on November 2.

         Burke also submitted a declaration in opposition to the Motion, but the declaration simply restates the facts alleged by the defendants. (Docket Item No. 51 at 1-8.) The plaintiff's brief in opposition is sworn and does contain some factual allegations. (Docket Item No. 51 at 9-31.) In particular, Burke stated that, in August 2016, group religious services were discontinued for offenders in Phase 1 of the VHU. Burke has filed as an exhibit a VDOC ...


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