On November 22, 2011, Rikers Island guards put Kevin Phillip into a segregation housing unit. It was punishment for something he did. Phillip spent 36 days there. On two Fridays over that stretch, Phillip asked the guards if he could attend a Muslim prayer service at the jail. The guards said that he was not allowed to while he was on punishment in the isolation unit.
The following April, guards again sent Phillip into the segregation unit. And again, they told him he could not attend the Friday Muslim prayer service, called Jumuah, during that 45-day punishment.
In 2012, Phillip sued the New York City Department of Corrections and several jail officials, alleging that they denied him the right to practice his religion.
Corrections officials argued, in a motion to dismiss the suit, that Phillip “failed to allege any facts showing that he was unable to practice his religion in any meaningful way.” Phillip, the officials stated, did not assert that attending the service “is a sincerely held religious belief.”
Late last month, though, a federal judge in New York rejected the motion to dismiss, ruling that Phillip can sue the Rikers wardens for possibly violating his First Amendment right to religious freedom, Courthouse News Service first reported.
Phillip’s “assertion that he was denied the right to attend Jumuah services on 10 occasions adequately alleges that his practice of Islam was substantially burdened,” wrote Judge Ronnie Abrams, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Before filing suit, Phillip had filed multiple grievances to high-level jail officials. And, the way Phillip explains it, those jail officials appeared to recognize the legitimacy of his complaints early on. In December 2011, Phillip claims, jail officials told him that “arrangements were being made for inmates to observe religious services in the segregation day-room.”
But that didn’t happen. Instead, Phillip claims that guards countered with extra punishment, including five additional days in segregation and other forms of “obvious harassment.”
Phillip’s allegations, Abrams stated, may reveal a “pattern of misconduct” and support “a conclusion that the denial was pursuant to a policy or custom.”
“The consistent, repeated nature of [Phillip’s] complaints and the fact that eight of the denials occurred after [Phillip’s] first grievance was allegedly resolved in his favor further bolster this conclusion,” the judge added.
For corrections officials, balancing religious freedom with the rigid policies of jails and prisons is a constant challenge. A former inmate at the Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York is currently suing the prison for punishing him when he refused to drink water for a drug test during Ramadan.
As we detailed in July:
In November 2003, prison guards . . . ordered Darryl Holland to take a drug test. He had three hours to provide a urine sample. But the order was not so simple. Holland was Muslim and it was Ramadan and he had not drunk any water all day. The guards gave him water to drink for the sample. Holland refused to drink it and asked if the guards could take the sample after sundown, once his fast was over.
The guards denied this request. Instead, they punished Holland, revoking various privileges for 90 days.
In a ruling similar to the Phillip case, the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Holland’s lawsuit could proceed. In that decision, the court concluded that the prison “permitted Holland a choice between prematurely breaking his fast or facing confinement in keep-lock. That choice — as has been clearly established by our precedent for decades — placed a substantial burden on the free exercise of his religion.”
The standard a lawsuit must meet to move forward, of course, is lower than that which it must meet to win at trial. But the rulings do establish how a prison or jail could be liable for religious rights violations.
Phillip, who was convicted of burglary, is now incarcerated at Coxsackie Correctional Facility in upstate New York.