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Colorado Court Finds Book Limitation Policy Violates Prisoner’s Religious Rights, but Case Reversed on Appeal

A federal district court held that a Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) policy which limits prisoners in administrative segregation to having no more than two personal books at a time violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The court limited its ruling to the plaintiff’s as-applied claim, however, and did not invalidate the CDOC policy; the judgment was subsequently reversed by the Tenth Circuit.

Prisoner Jacob Ind had been incarcerated for 21 years by the time his lawsuit challenging the book policy went to trial in January 2014. The district court noted that Ind, who is serving a life sentence, had been housed at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) and Limon Correctional Facility (LCF). CSP is home to the CDOC’s administrative segregation unit, while LCF is a general population prison.

Between September 1995 and December 2009, Ind spent approximately 10 years in administrative segregation at CSP. He alleged that the CDOC’s two-book policy for prisoners in segregation placed a substantial burden on his exercise of religion in violation of RLUIPA.

Ind, an associate member of the Christian Separatist Church Society, testified that his faith is a research-intensive religion that mandates intense study from its followers. “To properly practice his religion, Ind believes that he needs a minimum of ten books, so long as he can exchange books when he no longer needs them,” the district court wrote. “Ideally, Ind would prefer to have fifteen books at once.”

While Ind was in segregation he was allowed to possess only two books. After he filed suit, the CDOC changed its policy to allow prisoners to have one, two or five books, depending on the segregation level. Prison officials provided six justifications for the policy, ranging from the need to limit property to make cell searches easier to incentivizing prisoners’ good behavior by increasing their privileges.

The court found Ind had a sincere belief that intense study was fundamentally important to the practice of his religion. It further found the CDOC’s two-book policy substantially burdened Ind’s religious exercise. Those findings shifted the burden to state prison officials “to show that the personal book limits were the least restrictive means of achieving compelling governmental interests.”

The CDOC, however, “failed to produce any evidence as to the actual reason for adopting the personal [book] limits at the time they were imposed.” Instead, it submitted factually unsupported “post hoc rationalizations” from two prison officials. Having found no governmental interest to support the policy, the district court turned to consider whether the policy was the least restrictive means to serve its asserted interest.

Once again, the CDOC “utterly failed to meet this requirement. The record is devoid of any evidence as to why inmates are limited to two books, as opposed to one or three (or ten as Plaintiff requests),” the court wrote. Moreover, the CDOC had not even formally considered a less restrictive policy.

The district court therefore enjoined the CDOC “from enforcing ... its current book limitation policy” against Ind should he return to administrative segregation. The court further found Ind to be a prevailing party and awarded him $103,493.25 in attorney fees and costs. The court stressed that its order only affected Ind and had no impact on the CDOC’s book policy as applied to other prisoners held in administrative segregation. See: Ind v. Colorado Dept. of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00537-WJM-KLM; 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43461.

The state appealed the judgment and the Tenth Circuit reversed on September 11, 2015. The appellate court did not address the merits of Ind’s challenge to the CDOC’s two-book policy; rather, it found that he had not proven an exception to the mootness doctrine because he was no longer in segregation and thus no longer subject to the policy.

“It is undisputed that Mr. Ind’s release from administrative segregation has put an end to the alleged violation of his rights,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Mr. Ind remains in the general population, and we conclude that CDOC has carried its burden of showing the challenged conduct cannot reasonably be expected to resume.”

Consequently, Ind would have to file another, separate lawsuit if he was again placed in segregation and subjected to the two-book policy. The district court’s judgment and attorney fee award were vacated on remand. See: Ind v. Colo. Dep’t of Corr., 801 F.3d 1209 (10th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal cases

Ind v. Colo. Dep’t of Corr.

Ind v. Colorado Dept. of Corrections