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New York Muslim Prisoner Wins Injunction to Pray on Recreation Yard

In January 2018, a New York federal district court issued a preliminary injunction that required officials at the Cayuga Correctional Facility to allow a Muslim prisoner “to participate in individual, demonstrable prayer” on the prison’s recreation yard, “absent extraordinary circumstances.” The case later settled.

Prisoner Bornallah Wright filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). [See: PLN, Mar. 2019, p.30]. His suit alleged that as a practicing Muslim, he is required to pray at specific times each day. Sometimes these prayers must be performed while he is on the recreation yard. Prison officials, however, denied him the opportunity to do so.

Yet they allowed another Muslim prisoner, Aurel Smith, to pray on the recreation yard. That concession was permitted due to litigation brought by Smith that eventually resulted in a settlement agreement. Captain J. Rocker issued a memorandum that cited the settlement and decreed Smith was the only prisoner allowed to publicly pray on the recreation yard. Wright submitted grievances seeking to do likewise, which were denied.

After Wright filed suit and sought a preliminary injunction, the defendants moved to dismiss. The federal district court found that qualified immunity on Wright’s free exercise claim could not support dismissal at that point in the case because “Cayuga officials permitted Smith to pray demonstrably in the recreation yard and yet denied Plaintiff the ability to do so. This inconsistent treatment should have raised significant concerns among prison officials regarding the alleged penological interests supporting the policy of banning individual, demonstrable prayer.”

While there was no case law holding a prisoner had a right to such prayer in the recreation yard, precedent had established that prison officials needed some legitimate penological interest to justify burdening a prisoner’s sincere religious beliefs. Thus, qualified immunity did not apply on Wright’s First Amendment claim.

The district court also found that Wright could pursue injunctive relief (but not monetary damages) under RLUIPA. His equal protection claim, based on treatment that varied from that provided to Smith, was allowed to proceed. The court dismissed all of the defendants except Superintendent David Stallone due to lack of personal involvement. The court then granted a preliminary injunction to allow Wright to publicly pray on the recreation yard, and indicated it would appoint an attorney to represent him. 

On April 27, 2018, the district court dismissed Wright’s equitable relief claims as moot, with his agreement. The case settled in July 2018 with the defendants agreeing to pay $2,250, inclusive of damages and costs. See: Wright v. Stallone, U.S.D.C. (N.D. NY), Case No. 9:17-cv-00487-LEK-TWD; 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 15732. 

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Related legal case

Wright v. Stallone