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No Punishment for Possession of Radical Religious Literature

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held a prisoner's complaint was
sufficient to defeat summary judgment and require a trial. The civil rights
action was filed by a New York prisoner who spent 7 of his 15 years in
prison in solitary confinement. His claims all related to that confinement.
The district court granted prison officials summary judgment on the ground
the claims did not rise to the indignity of a constitutional violation.
First, the prisoner claimed damages for twelve days solitary confinement
for possession of inflammatory writings and for setting up a school for
Muslims. The Second Circuit said it had given sufficient warning to prison
officials that punishment for possession of religious material was
unconstitutional. However, the Warden was entitled to show his actions were
in good-faith reliance on a pre-existing procedure.

The court affirmed summary judgment on the prisoner's claim that he was
kept in solitary confinement for eight months for refusing to take an
achievement test, and for an indefinite period for his professed refusal to
obey prison rules. The court held the test was related to the prison's
objective of rehabilitation and refusal to participate can be punished; the
refusal to obey prison rules is sufficient reason to keep a prisoner confined.

The court further held that a jury must determine if the prisoner's
solitary confinement sentence of one year was so discriminatory as to be
constitutionally excessive. The jury must also determine if prolonged
confinement in "strip cells" amounted to cruel and unusual punishment that
"shocked the conscience."

Accordingly, the matter was affirmed in part and reversed in part. See:
Mukmuk v. Commissioner of Department of Correctional Services, 529 F.2d 272
(2nd Cir. 1976).

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Related legal case

Mukmuk v. Commissioner of Department of Correction

Mukmuk v. Commissioner of Department of Correctional Services, 529 F.2d 272 (2nd Cir. 01/13/1976)


[2] Docket No. 74-1504, No. 210 - September Term, 1975

[3] 529 F.2d 272

[4] decided: January 13, 1976.


[6] Appeal from an order of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Bonsal, J.), granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that practices complained of were not unconstitutional and, alternatively, that officials sued were not specifically implicated in allegedly unconstitutional actions. The Court of Appeals held that the case presented triable issues of fact. The judgment is affirmed in part, reversed in part, and the cause remanded for trial.

[7] David J. Fine, New York, New York (Elizabeth M. Fisher, David Rosenberg, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, New York, New York, of counsel), for Appellant.

[8] David L. Birch, Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the State of New York (Louis J. Lefkowitz, Attorney General, and Samuel A. Hirshowitz, First Assistant Attorney General, of counsel), for Appellees.

[9] Feinberg, Gurfein and Van Graafeiland, Circuit Judges.

[10] Author: Gurfein

[11] GURFIEN, Circuit Judge

[12] The plaintiff, Masia Mukmuk, is a Black Muslim leader who spent 15 years in New York state prisons.*fn1 From his own allegations in his civil rights complaint, he was an activist in prison. One cannot help but read between the lines that he has been a thorn in the side of prison officials during most of his prison life. Such activism tends to elicit a reactive use of power. To persons in authority in the prison scene that power is readily available. The serious question raised is whether the boundaries of permissible sanctions by the corrections officers were crossed and the constitutional rights of Mukmuk under the Eighth, Fourteenth and First Amendments violated.

[13] This is a § 1983 action which has long endured upon the docket of the District Court for the Southern District of New York with but little movement. The action was begun in August 1970. The complaint was twice amended. In October 1973, a motion for summary judgment was made by the defendants, who are the Commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services; J. Edwin LaVallee, Superintendent of the Clinton Correctional Facility; Vincent R. Mancusi, Superintendent of the Attica Correctional Facility; and John L. Zelker, Superintendent of the Green Haven Correctional Facility.*fn2

[14] The plaintiff countered with his own motion for summary judgment and with a motion for leave to file yet another amended complaint, which was denied as coming too late. Judge Bonsal granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment, generally upon the ground that what Mukmuk alleged did not sink to the indignity of constitutional violation.369 F. Supp. 245 (S.D.N.Y. 1974). Much as we sense provocation by the plaintiff, we must, nonetheless, hold that he has alleged triable issues of fact under existing precedents which defeat a summary judgment. We affirm, however, the denial of the right to file another amended complaint as being in the court's discretion (except with respect to the naming of additional defendants, see note 5 infra). The factor of time is not insignificant in these matters. For the very reasons that lead legislatures to enact statutes of repose, courts must acknowledge the special difficulties involved in trying to find truth when old cases come to untimely trial. In the prison setting, with a multitude of persons under custody and a continuing series of disciplinary problems recurring in various forms, it is not easy to recall the dramatis personae who enacted each incident. Memory tends to become kaleidoscopic instead of focusing upon the single scene or even the particular inmate.

[15] Since we must reverse the summary judgment, we shall sketch the allegations that lead us to this course.

[16] Appellant was sentenced, on a plea of guilty, on June 29, 1960 to concurrent terms of five to ten years on two burglary and larceny convictions, to be served consecutively to a term of ten to twenty years on a rape conviction. Upon sentencing he was sent to the Elmira Reception Center, and thence to various New York state prisons.*fn3 On June 12, 1972, the Appellate Division, Second Department, directed that his three sentences run concurrently.

[17] Mukmuk was held in solitary confinement or keeplock for over seven years out of a total prison life of fifteen years. Much of the confinement was avowedly punitive, for Mukmuk was a troublemaker by his own averment. He alleges most directly four or five incidents for which he seeks redress.*fn4

[18] I

[19] Appellant claims damages for a punishment of twelve days of solitary confinement imposed on him while at Green Haven in January 1967 for the possession of "inflammatory writings" and for setting up a school for Muslims. As the Supreme Court indicated in Cooper v. Pate,378 U.S. 546, 12 L. Ed. 2d 1030, 84 S. Ct. 1733 (1964), and as this circuit held in Pierce v. LaVallee, 293 F.2d 233 (2 Cir. 1961), prisoners retain their First Amendment rights relating to religious freedom. See also Kahane v. Carlson, 527 F.2d 492 (2 Cir. 1975). In 1964 we gave the New York Corrections authorities more time to propose rules for the regulation of Black Muslim prisoners, while indicating that as a religious group they possessed First Amendment rights even in prison. Sostre v. McGinnis,334 F.2d 906 (2 Cir.), cert. denied, 379 U.S. 892, 13 L. Ed. 2d 96, 85 S. Ct. 168 (1964). To the extent that the literature here involved may have been religious in character, the Warden had received sufficient warning from the courts by 1967 that it was unconstitutional to impose punishment for its possession. If it was, indeed, religious literature, the warden may be liable in damages, assuming that a sufficient personal responsibility is shown.*fn5 Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028, 1033-34 (2 Cir.), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 1033, 94 S. Ct. 462, 38 L. Ed. 2d 324 (1973). If the literature was exclusively nonreligious, punishment for its mere possession may be unconstitutional under present standards. See Sostre v. McGinnis,442 F.2d 178, 202-03 (2 Cir. 1971) (en banc), cert. denied, 404 U.S. 1049, 92 S. Ct. 719, 30 L. Ed. 2d 740, 405 U.S. 978, 92 S. Ct. 1190, 31 L. Ed. 2d 254 (1972); United States ex rel. Larkins v. Oswald, 510 F.2d 583, 588 (2 Cir. 1975). But it does not necessarily follow that the warden is liable in damages; it might be possible for him to establish that, under the law as it existed in 1967, his actions were in " good faith reliance on a pre-existing procedure." See Cox v. Cook,420 U.S. 734, 736, 43 L. Ed. 2d 587, 95 S. Ct. 1237 (1975), discussed infra; Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 557, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288, 87 S. Ct. 1213 (1967). These issues preclude the grant of summary judgment. *fn6

[20] II

[21] Appellant seeks damages for a "keeplock" (in which an inmate is locked in his cell 24 hours a day) of over eight months for his refusal to take an achievement test while at Attica Prison in 1969. Appellant's proffered reason for his refusal to take the test was his desire to protest the absence of a Black Studies program. There is no allegation that appellant was required to take the test because of discrimination against him. Since the test requirement was reasonable in light of the institution's program for rehabilitation, his refusal to participate did not immunize him from punishment. See Rutherford v. Hutto,377 F. Supp. 268, 273 (E.D. Ark. 1974).

[22] In Sostre v. McGinnis, supra, 442 F.2d at 194, we said that we would not deny to prison authorities the right to determine the length of punitive confinement when the inmate fails to obey valid prison regulations. In Wright v. McMann,460 F.2d 126, 134 (2 Cir.), cert. denied, 409 U.S. 885, 34 L. Ed. 2d 141, 93 S. Ct. 115 (1972), we treated Sostre, however, as holding merely that the federal courts should be "chary in entertaining inmate petitions claiming unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment . . . ." While not every such claim requires a trial, under the facts of this case we are inclined against summary judgment. See also LaReau v. MacDougall,473 F.2d 974, 978 n.6 (2 Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 414 U.S. 878, 94 S. Ct. 49, 38 L. Ed. 2d 123 (1973).

[23] III

[24] Appellant alleges that on March 16, 1965, at Attica Prison, he was charged with insolence and placed in the segregation unit for one year as a result (Second Amended Complaint PP 51-52). Appellant's brief acknowledges that he was also charged and found guilty of taking some brown wrapping paper without authorization, but alleges that he was unaware of a rule prohibiting this behavior. Although there are circumstances which might justify such an extreme punishment for such a minor offense, we are dealing with a grant of summary judgment. The appellant may prove at trial that the punishment was so discriminatory as to be constitutionally excessive. Of course, at trial, the prison authorities would be permitted to show that the seemingly harsh punishment was justified, in part because of appellant's cumulative record of disciplinary problems. There are issues of fact to be tried.

[25] IV

[26] Appellant alleges that the ten months of punitive segregation imposed on him in February 1967 after an interview with Deputy Warden DeLong of Clinton Prison (not named as a defendant) was unconstitutional (Second Amended Complaint PP 59-62). Mr. DeLong, in an affidavit dated May 17, 1967, swore that appellant, upon his transfer to Clinton Prison from Green Haven, was interviewed and

[27] "flatly refused to cooperate with the Administration and observe the rules and regulations of the institution (copy of which had been furnished). Subsequent interviews have revealed no change in his attitude. Inasmuch as he has preached black power and the violent overthrow of the United States Government and intends to continue doing so, it is necessary to confine him in an area where a general prison disturbance can be avoided."