Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Finds DOC Violated RLUIPA, Prior Settlement Agreement

Massachusetts state prisoners Randall Trapp and Robert Ferreira filed an amended complaint in Superior Court that accused the Department of Corrections (DOC) of violating a 2003 settlement agreement guaranteeing proper observance of Native American religious practices under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA). The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court agreed, noting in a November 23, 2015 decision that the DOC had failed to properly justify its closure of a purification (sweat) lodge, allegedly because smoke had seeped from the lodge into the administration area of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC).

RLUIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 to discourage prison officials from restricting prisoners’ religious practices based upon generalized, non-evidence based reasons. “Indeed, prison policies ‘grounded on mere speculation’ are exactly the ones that motivated Congress to enact RLUIPA,” the Supreme Judicial Court stated.

RLUIPA provides for exceptions where correctional security or the health of prisoners or staff can be shown to be negatively impacted. In such cases, prison officials still have the burden of showing they have instituted the least restrictive means that still allow prisoners to exercise their religious beliefs. Indeed, the Court wrote, the DOC must demonstrate “that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without a substantial burden” on prisoners’ religious rights.

Officials at SBCC had claimed they closed the purification lodge to protect employees and other prisoners from second-hand smoke. However, the Superior Court found the DOC failed to produce convincing evidence regarding any negative health issues and entered a declaratory judgment in favor of Trapp and Ferreira in September 2012. The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed, stating, “We conclude only that the evidence here was lacking and thus falls short of what RLUIPA requires.”

The Court rejected the DOC’s other arguments, including that some prisoners who had entered into the 2003 settlement were no longer at SBCC, noting the DOC had entered into a contractual agreement and was still bound by the terms of that agreement.

Prison officials also argued that prisoners had alternative ways of “engaging in Native American practices,” including smudging and pipe ceremonies as well as “talking circles, singing, chanting, and the playing of musical instruments, including drums, rattles and a flute.”

However, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015) [PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50] “forecloses the DOC’s argument, as counsel conceded during argument before us.” In Holt, the Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas prison policy that barred a devout Muslim prisoner from growing a half-inch beard. The high court “explained that ‘RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” inquiry asks whether the government has substantially burdened religious exercise..., not whether the RLUIPA claimant is able to engage in other forms of religious exercise.’”

The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the closure of the Native American purification lodge at SBCC was impermissible under RLUIPA and violated the 2003 settlement agreement, and therefore affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court. Trapp was one of five prisoners who had filed the original suit in 1995 that resulted in the settlement. See: Trapp v. Roden, 473 Mass. 210, 41 N.E.3d 1 (Mass. 2015). 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Trapp v. Roden