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Massachusetts DOC Injunction Requiring Broadcast of Jum’ah Services via Closed-Circuit Television Upheld

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld an injunction requiring the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) to broadcast Friday Jum’ah services via closed circuit television to Muslim prisoners in segregation.

The injunction comes in response to a suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The suit, filed by prisoners incarcerated in the Special Management Unit (SMU) at MCI-Cedar Junction, alleged that the plaintiffs were “denied the right to attend mandatory Jum’ah services” while segregated. The plaintiffs sought an injunction requiring prison officials to allow them “to attend all Jum’ah services either in person or via closed-circuit television.”

After a six-day bench-trial, the district court found for the plaintiffs. The court concluded that the DOC’s refusal to allow the plaintiffs to attend Jum’ah services constituted a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ sincere exercise of religion. The court agreed with the DOC that it had a compelling governmental interest in precluding segregated prisoners from attending Jum’ah services in person, but its refusal to broadcast the services via closed-circuit television was not the least restrictive means. Accordingly, the court ordered the DOC to broadcast Jum’ah services via closed-circuit television “whenever plaintiffs are housed in the Special Management Unit.”

After the district court entered its injunction, the DOC sought clarification of the court’s order, inquiring whether the injunction applied to any SMU the plaintiffs may be housed in the future. The district court confirmed that it did, and the DOC took appeal thereafter. The district court also awarded the prisoners’ lawyers, the law firm of McDermott, Will and Emery, $237,299.25 in attorney fees and $13,630.17 in costs.

On appeal, the DOC argued that the scope of the district court’s injunction was too broad. For instance, the DOC complained that the injunction was not “narrowly drawn,” as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and that due to cost reasons, it could demonstrate a compelling governmental interest in not providing closed-circuit broadcasting of Jum’ah services in SMUs at different facilities than MCI-Cedar Junction.

Finding no abuse of discretion in the district court’s order, the First Circuit affirmed. The DOC was on notice from the beginning of the lawsuit that the plaintiffs “plainly sought system-wide relief,” the court wrote. The DOC, however, “put nothing in the record to differentiate facilities…on the issues of compelling governmental interest or least restrictive means.”

“The district court is not a mind reader,” the court wrote. Given the DOC’s failure to produce evidence as to cost-burden by the district court’s order, there was no error “in framing the injunction.”

The First Circuit left open the possibility for the DOC to seek modification of the district court’s injunction, though. The court noted, for instance, that Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b) (5) permits a party to move for relief from an injunction when “applying it prospectively is no longer equitable.” In addition, the First Circuit recognized that the district court was willing to address modification to the injunction, if necessary. Thus, the First Circuit wrote, “if and when the time comes, the [DOC] will have an avenue to press its concerns.” As this issue of PLN goes to press, the Massachusetts DOC has done nothing to modify the injunction. See: Crawford v. Clarke, 578 F.3d 39 (1st Cir. 2009)

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Related legal case

Crawford v. Clarke