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Firewalker-Fields v. Lee

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

September 30, 2019

David Nighthorse Firewalker-Fields, Plaintiff,
v.
Jack Lee, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         David Nighthorse Firewalker-Fields, a Virginia inmate proceeding pro se, filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [1] naming as Defendants Jack Lee, who is the Superintendent of the Middle River Regional Jail (“MRRJ”), and the Middle River Regional Jail Authority. In general terms, the Verified Complaint, as supplemented, [2] alleges that Defendants’ policies, practices, and customs at the MRRJ promote Christianity, prohibit Muslim religious practices, and unfairly and disproportionately house Muslim inmates in segregation.

         In ruling on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, I dismissed Plaintiff’s claims for declaratory and injunctive relief, (Dkt. 43), which had been mooted by his transfer from the MRRJ to the Virginia Department of Corrections. See Cty. of Los Angeles v. Davis, 440 U.S. 625, 631 (1979); Williams v. Griffin, 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991) (inmate’s transfer rendered moot his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief). In light of that dismissal, I also dismissed his claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1, et seq., noting that damages are not available under RLUIPA. (Dkt. 42, 43).

         Three claims remain in this case: a claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, a claim under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and a claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Firewalker-Fields’ allegations are that the MRRJ broadcasted weekly Christian religious services on televisions and also allowed Christian faith-based classes, but it refused to allow “Islamic Jumuah [F]riday prayer services[, ] which are a required part of the Islamic faith[, ] and Islamic Faith Classes.” (Verified Compl. 2, Dkt. 1.) He also alleges that the classification system established by Lee at the MRRJ has resulted in the majority of the Muslim inmates being placed into “Max” pods. (Supp. to Verified Compl. 2–3, Dkt. 19.) According to Firewalker-Fields, inmates in “max” pods are basically in “forced segregation, ” are on lockdown all but three hours per day, and are “ineligible for any institutional programs geared toward rehabilitation or religion.” (Id.)

         Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on the three remaining claims, (Dkt. 56), Plaintiff Firewalker-Fields responded, (Dkt. 59), and Defendants filed a reply (Dkt. 61), making the matter ripe for disposition. Having reviewed the record, the Court concludes that the Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on all remaining claims. This opinion also will address other pending motions, to the extent that they are not mooted by the summary judgment ruling.

         I. Background

         A. First Amendment Claims

         According to the MRRJ’s Program Director, John Lilly, the MRRJ’s inmate population is overwhelmingly Christian. (Lilly Decl. ¶ 4, Dkt. 57-2.) Nonetheless, the MRRJ makes accommodations for various other faiths and religions. As relevant here, the MRRJ permits Muslim inmates to keep prayer rugs and soft-covered Qurans in their cells, offers special meal times during Ramadan, and provides a year-round, pork-free diet. Also, each inmate is permitted to place a spiritual advisor on his visitation list. Each inmate may visit with his spiritual advisor once per week and may pray with the spiritual advisor. If an inmate places an imam on his visitation list, the inmate may pray with the imam on Fridays starting at 12:30 p.m. Firewalker-Fields never placed an imam on his visitor list. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 7, 8.)

         To accommodate its large group of Christian inmates, the MRRJ provides a religious service on Sunday mornings, broadcasting it to closed-circuit televisions located in the “day rooms” attached to each housing unit. There is no evidence in the record as to how often Plaintiff-or even other inmates-otherwise obtain access to these “day rooms, ” the conditions of the “day rooms” compared to the “housing areas, ” and whether inmates who go to the day rooms for the programming have the ability to engage in any kinds of recreation during, before, or after the programming.

         The weekly services are taped and donated by a Mennonite group. Defendants reference the services as “non-denominational, ” but it is also undisputed that the services have “Christian themes.” (Id. ¶ 2.) The service is shown during lock-down hours and any inmate may go to the day room to watch; to avoid watching it, an inmate may stay in his “housing area.” (Id.) The MRRJ’s system is a closed-circuit television system, and the MRRJ has no way to show a video to inmates without playing it on every television at the MRRJ. (Id. ¶ 3.)

         Several factors affect the availability of a Friday Muslim service in which inmates gather together to pray.[3] First, the MRRJ has a policy prohibiting inmates from leading any group, including a religious group. The security reasons for this prohibition include preventing “formation of a ‘gang’ mentality” and avoiding “the risk that inmates will take orders from other inmates rather than MRRJ officers.” (Id. ¶ 11.) Thus, the MRRJ prohibits group worship in the absence of an approved, volunteer faith group leader. Lilly emphasizes that all classes hosted at the MRRJ-religious and non-religious alike-are provided by donation or on a voluntary basis. (Id. ¶¶ 9–11.) As Lilly summarizes, “[j]ail safety, resources, willing volunteers, and inmate demand necessarily factor into the available religious programming at the MRRJ.” (Id. ¶ 10.)

         Second, both Lilly and Faye McCauley, an Operation Specialist at the MRRJ, state in their affidavits that no imam or other Islamic leader has volunteered to lead any religious activities at the MRRJ, despite its efforts to reach out to the local Muslim community. (Id. ¶ 12); McCauley Decl. ¶ 6). The outreach efforts consisted of repeatedly calling the nearest mosque, although no one answered any time McCauley called, and there was no way to leave voice-mail. (McCauley Decl. ¶ 6).[4] Additionally, no Muslim groups participate in either of the two local re-entry councils, which are community groups designed to assist inmates in re-entry and which are also a “source of outside assistance and programming.” (Lilly Decl. ¶¶ 13–15; McCauley Decl. ¶¶ 4–6.) Nor has the MRRJ received any donations of taped services or other materials from any Muslim group. (Lilly Decl. ¶¶ 12, 20.) In contrast, the MRRJ has more local (presumably Christian) church groups “volunteer to provide programming than [the MRRJ] can accommodate.” (Id. ¶ 12.) There is no contrary evidence in the supplemented Verified Complaint on any of these facts.

         B. Equal Protection Clause

         Firewalker-Fields raises a two-part claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. First, he alleges that Christian inmates were allowed to participate in congregational prayer each Sunday and attend religious classes but that Muslim inmates were not. Second, he alleges that the classification system at the MRRJ (which he alleges was established by Lee) “has sequestered the majority of the Muslim inmates” into maximum-security pods. As to the second of these allegations, this Court previously construed it to be a claim that “defendants’ policies, practices, and customs cause Muslim inmates to be housed in segregation at a greater proportion than Christian inmates because of religious affiliation.”[5] (Dkt. 42, at 7.)

         II. Standard of Review

         Under Rule 56, summary judgment is proper where “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine issue of material fact exists only where the record, taken as a whole, could lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009). In making that determination, I must take “the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

         A party opposing summary judgment “may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Moreover, “[t]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 247–48. Instead, the non-moving party must produce “significantly probative” evidence from which a reasonable jury could return a verdict in his favor. Abcor Corp. v. AM Int’l, Inc., 916 F.2d 924, 930 (4th Cir. 1990) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249–50).

         Firewalker-Fields is proceeding pro se and, thus, he is entitled to a liberal construction of his pleading. See, e.g., Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). In the Fourth Circuit, verified complaints by pro se inmates are to be considered as affidavits when the allegations contained therein are based on personal knowledge. Williams v. Griffin, 952 F.2d 820, 823 (4th Cir. 1991). Thus, I treat the allegations in his signed complaint as sworn facts offered in opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. Because his brief in opposition is not sworn or verified, however, statements in the brief are not evidence that may be considered on summary judgment. United States v. White, 366 F.3d 291, 300–01 (4th Cir. 2004).

         III. Analysis

         A. Free Exercise Claim

         The First Amendment protects an individual’s right to the free exercise of religion. U.S. Const. amend I. To state a claim that prison officials or regulations have violated his right to freely exercise his religion, Plaintiff must first prove “(1) he holds a sincere religious belief; and (2) a prison practice or policy places a substantial burden on his ability to practice his religion.” Wilcoxv. Brown, 877 F.3d 161, 168 (citing Tho ...


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