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Second Circuit: No Qualified Immunity for Wardens Accused of Violating Religious Freedom of Muslim Prisoners in Connecticut

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On June 17, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision denying qualified immunity (QI) to federal prison wardens in Connecticut, who were accused of unconstitutionally restricting prayer practices for Muslim prisoners.

In 2014, while held by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution (FCI), Rafiq Sabir and other Muslim prisoners observed prayer at five prescribed times daily, doing so together whenever possible. Then, in March 2014, a new policy was implemented: Now only two prisoners were permitted to pray together unless they were in a larger group inside the prison chapel. The chapel, however, was frequently unavailable during Islamic prayer times.

Guards warned Sabir and his co-religionists that violating the policy would result in disciplinary action. Later, when prisoner James Conyers arrived in 2016, he experienced the same thing. Both men filed grievances, which were denied by then-Warden Herman Quay.

In May 2017, Sabir filed suit pro se in federal court for the District of Connecticut against Quay and his replacement, Warden D.K. Williams, along with then-Director of BOP Thomas Kane. He accused them under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of violating his First Amendment right to free exercise of his religion. He also lodged claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), though the latter was eventually excluded.

Sabir’s second amended complaint substituted then-current BOP Director Mark Inch. At that point, Conyers joined him as a co-plaintiff, and they picked up representation by attorney Matthew W. Callahan with Muslim Advocates in Washington, DC. In the suit he filed, he pointed out that the prison allowed groups of three or more prisoners to meet for other activities such as sports; that made it difficult to see any legitimate security concern to justify the restriction Plaintiffs faced. He asked for a declaration that the policy was unlawful, as well as an injunction to prevent its enforcement, plus damages from Williams and Quay.

Defendants countered that Sabir and Conyers’ claims were moot, since they were transferred from Danbury FCI as soon as litigation began. The two wardens moved to dismiss the suit, claiming QI. But they could not show the district court any compelling governmental interest in the policy. Neither could new BOP Director Hugh Hurwitz, whose staff continued to insist the policy was “the least restrictive alternative” that was “consistent with security and budgetary constraints,” borrowing the text of RFRA. The district court wasn’t buying that, however. On August 27, 2019, it denied Defendants QI.

They turned to the Second Circuit, and it concurred. Whatever “compelling interest” Defendants had in making and enforcing the policy, the Court said, it was absent from their pleadings. Moreover, the Court continued, “it was clearly established at the time of the violation that substantially burdening an inmate’s religious exercise without justification violates RFRA.” However, “even if it were not clearly established that the wardens violated RFRA,” the Court said it would “still address the merits question first” — before making a final determination on Defendants’ QI — “to clearly establish the law and prevent a vicious cycle of shielded misconduct.” See: Sabir v. Williams, 37 F.4th 810 (2d Cir. 2022). 

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