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GARTRELL v. ASHCROFT

February 19, 2002

ISADORE GARTRELL, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
V.
JOHN D. ASHCROFT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., United States District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs represent a class of prisoners from the District of Columbia whose avowed religious beliefs forbid them from cutting their hair or shaving their beards. They are in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons ("BOP") and are housed in prison facilities run by the Virginia Department of Corrections ("VDOC"). Plaintiffs allege that BOP's decision to house them in VDOC prisons rather than in BOP prisons violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA")*fn1 and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment*fn2 because VDOC imposes a grooming policy that requires prisoners to shave their beards and keep their hair short. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent BOP from subjecting them to the grooming policy.

This case is a continuation of litigation brought against the District of Columbia in December, 1999, during which BOP intervened as a party defendant. At that time, plaintiffs made two basic claims. "First, they contended that VDOC lacked a compelling interest in the grooming policy and that the policy was not the least restrictive means of achieving whatever interests VDOC had. Alternatively, they argued that BOP and the District had a less restrictive means of housing prisoners who believed that the grooming policy required them to violate fundamental religious tenets: transferring them to non-Virginia prison facilities without such grooming policies."*fn3 This court resolved the case by entering a judgment in favor of the defendants, holding that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. (PLRA).*fn4 This court also addressed and rejected plaintiffs' claim that VDOC's grooming policy violated RFRA and the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause.*fn5 On appeal, the D.C. Circuit affirmed this court's judgment, agreeing that plaintiffs had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, but vacated the portion of this court's decision regarding the merits of plaintiffs' claims. The D.C. Circuit observed, however, that this court had expressly "`decline[d] to evaluate' the issue raised by the prisoners' alternative claim: `whether defendants have compelling interests in keeping plaintiffs incarcerated in Virginia Corrections facilities.'"*fn6 With respect to this claim, the court said, "should the prisoners refile after exhausting their administrative remedies, the district court will need to consider whether BOP and the District can demonstrate that alternative placement in non-Virginia prisons without grooming policies is infeasible."*fn7

After exhausting their administrative remedies, plaintiffs refiled the instant action. Based on the evidence presented at the three-day trial of this case, the court makes the following:

FINDINGS OF FACT

I. BOP'S DECISION TO HOUSE CLASS MEMBERS IN VDOC FACILITIES SUBSTANTIALLY BURDENS THEIR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND PRACTICES

A. Plaintiffs Have Sincere Religious Beliefs That Conflict With the VDOC Grooming Policy

1. The parties have stipulated that "each of the named plaintiffs has sincerely held religious beliefs that prohibit them from shaving or cutting their hair, and that conflict with VDOC's grooming policy." Stipulations of Fact ¶ 3 (filed Oct. 27, 2001). See also Jackson, 89 F. Supp.2d at 65 (finding that "plainitffs have met their burden of showing that [VDOC's] grooming policy substantially burdens their exercise of religion.").

2. Carl Wolfe, one of the named plaintiffs in this action, is an adherent of the Rastafarian faith. As a part of the practice of his faith, Wolfe has taken the Vow of the Nazarite, based on Numbers 6 of the Bible, that prohibits him from shaving his beard or cutting his hair. It would be a violation of a fundamental tenet of the Rastafarian faith for Wolfe to have his hair cut or his face shaved after he has taken this vow. See Jackson, 89 F. Supp.2d at 65 (finding Wolfe's testimony regarding his faith to be "heartfelt and sincere," and finding that he grows his beard and dreadlocks "because of [his] religious beliefs").

3. Isadore Gartrell and Darnell Stanley, both named plaintiffs in this action, are adherents of the Sunni Muslim sect of the Islamic religion. Gartrell and Stanley hold sincere beliefs that shaving off their beards violates a fundamental tenet of Islam. See id. (finding that previous named plaintiff who was Sunni Muslim grew his beard "because of [his] religious beliefs").

B. VDOC's Grooming Policy Imposes a Substantial Burden Upon Plaintiffs' Religious Beliefs

4. A fundamental tenet of the Sunni and other Muslim sects prohibits male followers from shaving their faces. See Jackson, 48 F. Supp.2d at 65. Likewise, a fundamental tenet of Rastafarianism prohibits a person from shaving his beard or cutting his hair after he has taken the Vow of the Nazarite. See Jackson, 89 F. Supp.2d at 65.

5. In November 1999, VDOC adopted Inmate Grooming Standards Procedure No. DOP 864 (the "grooming policy") requiring all inmates in VDOC facilities to wear their hair short, in military-style fashion, and prohibiting all inmates from wearing beards.

6. The grooming policy requires all BOP inmates housed in VDOC to submit to grooming at regular intervals. The grooming policy also requires all newly admitted BOP inmates from the District to submit to grooming during the VDOC intake process.

7. An inmate who refuses to comply with the grooming policy is subject to disciplinary reports, administrative segregation (confinement in a cell for 23 hours a day), increases in security and custody level, loss of prison employment, exclusion from programming, and loss of privileges such as visitation, commissary, and telephone. Named plaintiff Wolfe, for example, was held in administrative segregation at Sussex II because he refused to comply with the grooming policy.

8. VDOC officials do not consider religious objections to be a valid basis for noncompliance with the grooming policy. The VDOC lieutenant overseeing Wolfe's intake at Sussex II told Wolfe that his Rastafarian beliefs regarding shaving his beard and cutting his hair did not matter, and that if he had an objection to the grooming policy, he would have to "take that up in court."

9. The grooming policy allows VDOC correctional officers to use force and restraints to shave newly admitted inmates during the intake process if the inmates refuse to comply with the grooming policy. VDOC recently began forcibly shaving inmates who do not voluntarily comply. Inmates who refuse to comply on religious grounds are restrained, with one guard on each side and three guards positioned near their legs, and shaved by a VDOC official. After the VDOC officials complete the forced shaving, they issue a disciplinary report against the objecting inmate and send him to administrative segregation.

10. VDOC has repeatedly told Wolfe that if he returns to Sussex II, he will be shaved by force. On one occasion, as he was being transported from administrative segregation to meet with his counsel, a VDOC official told Wolfe, "`Rasta boy I'm really going to cut that shit off your hair." Wolfe testified as follows how such a forced shaving would affect him: "If somebody should hold me down and cut my dre[a]ds and shave my face, that's going to hurt me. That's like taking a part of my soul. This is my faith. This is my . . . whole life . . . this is my religion. This is something where I live by . . . And it will just kill me."

11. The court finds that subjecting class members to the VDOC grooming policy imposes a substantial burden on the exercise of their religion. See Jackson, 89 F. Supp.2d at 65.

C. BOP Houses its District of Columbia Inmates in Both VDOC and BOP Prison Facilities

12. In 1997, Congress passed the Revitalization Act, which required the District of Columbia Department of Corrections ("D.C. Corrections") to close its Lorton facility by December 31, 2001. The Revitalization Act also required that BOP assume custody of all sentenced felons coming out of District of Columbia courts no later than December 31, 2001.

13. Pursuant to the Revitalization Act, in October 1999 BOP began to take custody of some District inmates and began transferring them out of D.C. Corrections facilities and into BOP facilities, VDOC facilities, and other contract facilities around the country.

14. As a result of these custody transfers under the Revitalization Act, some 6,800 District inmates, including the named plaintiffs, are now in the custody of BOP. A majority of these inmates-approximately 3,600-are housed in BOP facilities located across the United States. One thousand low security BOP inmates from the District are housed at Rivers Correctional Center, a private contract facility in North Carolina, and some 2,200 District inmates are housed in VDOC facilities.

15. BOP has intergovernmental agreements with the Commonwealth of Virginia to house District inmates at two facilities in Virginia: Greensville, located in Greensville, Virginia; and Sussex II, located in Waverly, Virginia. Greensville houses medium security District inmates and Sussex II houses high security District inmates.

16. BOP executed the agreement with VDOC to house inmates at Greensville on October 1, 1999, and renewed that agreement effective September 6, 2001.

17. BOP executed the agreement with VDOC to house inmates at Sussex II on July 13, 2001. BOP's Sussex II contract replaced a similar contract between the District of Columbia and VDOC that expired on that day.

D. BOP Does Not Consider Alternatives to Housing Plaintiffs in VDOC Facilities

18. Since the filing of the Jackson lawsuit in December 1999, BOP has been aware that a number of District inmates at Greensville and Sussex II have religious objections to the VDOC grooming policy.

19. BOP is also aware of the substantial burdens imposed on its inmates who have religious objections to the grooming policy. For example, BOP is aware that a number of District inmates at Sussex II are in administrative segregation because they failed to comply with the grooming policy due to religious objections.

20. BOP admits that denying an inmate access to religious practices because he is in administrative segregation may undermine the inmate's prospects of reintegration and rehabilitation. Nonetheless, BOP places inmates with religious objections to the grooming policy in administrative segregation in VDOC rather than transferring them to other facilities where they would be able to fully practice their religion.

21. Sound correctional practice recognizes that inmates who are allowed to practice the fundamental tenets of their religion present less of a management problem than inmates who do not participate in religious activities. Penological research also indicates that inmates who practice the fundamental tenets of their religion have lower recidivism rates than inmates who do not participate in religious activities.

22. Despite its knowledge that the VDOC grooming policy imposes a substantial burden upon Muslim and Rastafarian inmates, BOP has refused to consider any alternative to housing the class members in VDOC facilities.

II. BOP HAS LESS RESTRICTIVE ALTERNATIVES AVAILABLE FOR HOUSING CLASS MEMBERS

A. BOP's Non-VDOC Facilities Provide a Less Restrictive Alternative

23. BOP has approximately 100 institutions of its own in which it houses inmates. BOP's District prisoners are already housed in almost all of these facilities. In addition, BOP contracts with a number of private facilities to house inmates.

24. BOP does not impose a grooming policy restricting hair or beard length in its own institutions. See 28 C.F.R. § 551.2, 551.4. Rather, an inmate may select "the hair style of personal choice, and [BOP] expects personal cleanliness and dress in keeping with standards of good grooming and the security, good order, and discipline of the institution." Id. In addition, "an inmate may wear a mustache or beard or both." Id.

25. Across the BOP system, inmate population is in constant flux. Bed space opens every day as thousands of inmates per week are released from custody, or transferred from one institution to another within the same security level or between security levels. In fact, there are more than 50,000 inmate movements in the BOP system each year.

26. BOP's own institutions, and those of its contractors that do not impose a grooming policy that would burden plaintiffs' religious practices, provide less restrictive alternative placements in which class members could be housed.

B. BOP'S Contention That Its Non-VDOC Facilities Are Not Available to House Class Members Is Contrary to the Evidence

At trial, BOP admitted that it has not considered whether there is a less restrictive alternative to housing class members in VDOC institutions. Nonetheless, BOP argued at trial that no less restrictive alternative is available for two reasons: 1) because BOP's non-VDOC facilities are overcrowded; and 2) because it would either be unlawful or impracticable for BOP to determine whether an inmate has a bona fide religious objection to the VDOC grooming policy. Each of these purported justifications fails to establish that BOP has no less restrictive alternative available to subjecting class members to a grooming policy that substantially burdens their religion.

1. BOP'S contention that its non-VDOC facilities are unavailable because they are overcrowded is unfounded

27. BOP currently has custody of approximately 156,000 prisoners. Approximately 50,000 of these inmates are medium or high security. There is a constant flow of prisoners into, out of, and within the system, amounting to more than 50,000 inmate movements in the BOP system each year.

28. Every BOP-owned facility tracks its "pipeline in" and "pipeline out," showing numbers of inmates scheduled to go to and leave from a particular institution over a 30- or 45-day period. The number of inmates at any given institution is changing constantly because some inmates are departing while others are arriving. For ...

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