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New Mexico Prisoner Vindicates Native American Religious Rights with Injunction, Fees and Damages

A New Mexico prisoner has prevailed in a religious freedom case that vindicated his right to practice his Native American beliefs. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement in April 2009 that specified the religious practices prison officials must allow, as well as nominal damages, costs and attorney fees.

New Mexico state prisoner Jimmy Kinslow is a member of the Potawatomi tribe of Native American Indians. While incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Corrections Facility, he filed a federal lawsuit claiming prison officials were not providing him with adequate time in a sweat lodge or materials needed for his religious expression.

Shortly after the suit was filed, Kinslow was reclassified to a higher security level and transferred to the Supermax at the Penitentiary for New Mexico (PNM). Appearing pro se, Kinslow withstood the defendant prison officials’ motion for summary judgment, with the court ordering the defendants to submit a Martinez report.

After a supplemental report was filed which allowed the court to determine the prison’s policies, practices and security needs, the district court advised prison officials that they had conceded limiting Kinslow’s “access to the Sweat Lodge and denying him materials for his medicine bag,” and “had not come forth with the specific policies for their actions.” Consequently, an evidentiary hearing was ordered.

Kinslow, still proceeding pro se, testified at the hearing. In addition to testifying about the deprivations related to his religious practices, Kinslow said prison officials were requiring him to prove he was Native American, “since I was mostly white.”

In the Magistrate’s second report it was noted that “security” was mentioned several times by prison officials to justify their actions, but in a conclusory manner that failed to explain the deprivation of Kinslow’s religious rights. The district court found Kinslow was entitled to summary judgment on his claims under the First Amendment and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He also prevailed under New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The court awarded Kinslow $100 in nominal damages, and in a third report the Magistrate recommended granting a preliminary injunction. Prior to a trial to determine if the injunction should be permanent, Kinslow was appointed counsel.

In April 2009, the New Mexico Department of Corrections conceded defeat without admitting wrongdoing. They agreed to allow at least four hours a month for a sweat lodge ceremony and another one-hour period twice a month for prisoners to use the sweat lodge. Prison officials also agreed to let Kinslow receive tobacco and other items needed for his religious ceremonies while at PNM.

In addition to the nominal damage award, Kinslow received $453.60 in costs. His attorneys, from the Santa Fe law firm of Holland & Hart, received $20,000 in fees and $4,167.60 in costs.

Kinslow notified the court in January 2010 that the defendants had violated the settlement agreement, but his counsel later stated they were “attempting to resolve the matters ... without court involvement.” See: Kinslow v. New Mexico Corrections Department, U.S.D.C. (D. New Mexico), Case No. 6:07-cv-01164-MV-RLP.

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Related legal case

Kinslow v. New Mexico Corrections Department

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.