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PIERCE v. LAVALLEE

May 11, 1962

James PIERCE, Petitioner,
v.
J. E. LaVALLEE, Warden of Clinton Prison, Dannemora, New York, Respondent. Martin T. SOSTRE, Petitioner, v. J. E. LaVALLEE, Warden of Clinton Prison, Dannemora, New York, Respondent. William SaMARION, Petitioner, v. J. E. LaVALLEE, Warden of Clinton Prison, Dannemora, New York, Respondent



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BRENNAN

The background of these actions, brought to declare and enforce the plaintiffs' rights pertaining to the exercise of their religious beliefs, is found in the decision reported under the name of Pierce v. LaVallee, 293 F.2d 233. The three issues raised in the plaintiffs' complaints were disposed of as follows.

The plaintiffs' right to purchase and possess the Quran was disposed of in the above decision. Plaintiffs' contention as to their right to contact a 'spiritual advisor' was abandoned. The third claim for relief was remanded to this court in the following language. '* * * the cases (are) remanded for consideration of the claims that plaintiffs were disciplined solely because of their religious beliefs.' Pierce v. LaVallee, supra, page 236.

The issue, thus remanded, has been tried to the court. Considerable latitude was afforded the plaintiffs in the matter of the evidence received, some of which related to the contention that plaintiffs had been deprived of their right to contact a spiritual advisor. The court took this position for the reason that petitioners indicated that they desired to withdraw their previous abandonment of that issue. Decision as to whether or not such issue would be determined by this court was withheld at the trial and is now refused in view of the decision of Brown v. McGinnis, 10 N.y.2d 531.

 This decision will then be limited to the question as to the discipline of the plaintiffs solely because of their religious beliefs, as indicated in the decision of the Circuit Court above referred to.

 The plaintiffs are state court prisoners. At the pertinent times involved, they were confined at Clinton Prison, Dannemora N.Y., by reason of state court commitments. The defendant, at such times, was the Warden of Clinton Prison and charged with the overall duty of supervision of that institution and with the care, custody and safety of the inmates thereof. A considerable portion of the factual background involved in this litigation applies equally to each of the three plaintiffs and same is set out below prior to any narration of facts which are particularly applicable to the individual plaintiffs.

 On August 15, 1959, disciplinary action was taken by the prison authorities against each of the three plaintiffs. The action was taken based upon identical reports of a Guard Captain which in substance charged each plaintiff with 'agitating'. Such reports consisted of a statement to the effect that each plaintiff was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood actively engaged in its activities, the organization being a source of racial hatred and advocates the use of force as a last resort. In accordance with prison procedure, each of the plaintiffs appeared before the Principal Keeper of the prison and after discussion of the report, a judgment was made depriving each plaintiff of sixty days good time and assigning each to segregation. Each plaintiff claims that the above action was taken and the discipline inflicted solely as punishment for his religious belief and constituted a deprivation of his constitutional right to the exercise of his religion.

 Clinton Prison at the times involved had an inmate population of about twenty-two hundred persons of various racial and religious backgrounds or beliefs. About thirty of such inmates were recognized as Muslims. The details of their religious belief were unknown to the prison authorities. There has been in existence at the prison for a number of years a system whereby plots of land in the prison yard of varying dimensions are assigned to inmates for their use during specific hours when yard privileges are available. The plots, thus allotted, about 300 in number, are known as 'courts' and are put to use by the assigned inmates for various recreational or educational purposes. One or more of such courts were assigned to and controlled by members of the Muslim organization. This court was enlarged from time to time by the absorption of a neighboring court so that in June 1959, four of said courts had been combined into one large area which was used by members of the organization for their purposes. It is evident that the use of said courts by inmates was encouraged or permitted as an outlet for inmate activities.

 In the early part of the year 1959, the activities upon the Muslim court came to the attention of prison officials. In the spring of that year, the prison authorities directed surveillance of the Muslim court and a report by the yard guard of activities therein. The testimony of the guards indicated a more or less continuous activity within the Muslim court. A larger number of inmates than was usually found gathered at that area and were often addressed by some individual. It was observed that some of those present wore black caps, not usually worn by inmates. It was noted especially for a period prior to August 10, 1959 that upon the approach of a guard to the Muslim court, all conversation and activity ceased so that the guard was unable to hear what was being said. When the guard moved out of hearing distance, conversation resumed and the speaker apparently received the full attention of the group. This action was interpreted by prison officials as indicating discussions, the nature of which was purposely withheld from the prison authorities, which indicated a secretiveness or condition of unrest. On August 10, 1959, the prison authorities made an examination of the homemade 'locker' located on the Muslim court. There was found therein and taken therefrom literature and documents relating to the religion of Islam and the Muslim movement. These documents were examined by prison authorities. It was found that there existed an organization known as the 'Muslim Brotherhood'. This organization had a written constitution which apparently came into existence about April 1959. This instrument is set out as an appendix to this decision. After the documents, so seized, had been examined and appraised by prison officials, the charges, above referred to, were made and the discipline invoked.

 Prior to the occurrences of April 10, 1959 and as early as February or March of that year, members of the Muslim group had made oral request for the setting aside of facilities within the prison where they could gather, pray together and conduct their religious services. On March 23, 1959, a proceeding was started in the state court, instituted by Sostre, to require that such facilities be made available. In the early part of July 1959, requests were submitted by the three plaintiffs for permission to purchase a certain edition of the Quran. These requests were refused and this particular controversy was disposed of in the former decision of the Circuit Court. It may be added that the final disposition of such request was not made until August 25, 1959 after the seizure of the literature on August 10, 1959. Additional facts, particularly pertinent to each of the three plaintiffs, are set out below.

 PIERCE

 Pierce was received at Clinton Prison on January 25, 1959. At that time his professed religious faith was that of a Muslim. When he was first received into the prison system, he was registered as a member of another faith. He was assigned to work, under guard, outside the prison walls and had earned good time. He was a member of the Muslim group. He was transferred from Clinton Prison to Auburn Prison on January 25, 1961. He remained in segregation from August 15 until the time of his transfer. He has been subject to additional disciplinary action while in segregation. Pierce is the author of a writing, apparently written and distributed many times which is indicative of his attitude toward prison authorities whom he considers as oppressors. Same is set out in part in the footnote below. *fn1"

 SOSTRE

 Sostre arrived at Clinton Prison in March of 1952 and was transferred to Attica on June 28, 1960. At the time of his admission to the prison system, he was registered as a member of a recognized faith. He embraced the religion of Islam in 1956. 'Well, I am a Muslim. A non-denominational Muslim. I am not registered with any particular sect'. He was an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood; was acquainted with its constitution and took the oath described therein. He was confined in segregation from August 15, 1959 to the time of his transfer. Sostre is an intelligent, articulate person who took an active part in the brotherhood affairs, including teaching other members at the court. He was instrumental in initiating legal proceedings designed to obtain additional rights for members of the Brotherhood or to obtain rights withheld from them.

 The time length of plaintiffs' confinement in segregation at Clinton Prison was somewhat emphasized in the testimony of the plaintiffs. Although these actions did not involve a contention of cruel and unusual treatment, plaintiffs seem to ask the court to infer that the length of such confinement was associated with the basis thereof. An exhibit, written by Sostre while at Attica Prison, was received in evidence as indicating his disposition relative to his confinement in segregation and the failure of the authorities at Clinton Prison to release him therefrom. A part of this exhibit is set out in the footnote below. *fn2"

 SaMARION

 SaMarion arrived at the Clinton Prison in May 1958 and was transferred to Attica Prison on May 28, 1960. His education terminated after two years in high school. At the time of his admission to the prison system, his adherence to a recognized religious faith was noted. During his confinement at Clinton Prison, he embraced the faith of Islam. He was an assistant leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and subscribed to the constitution of that organization. He attended meetings held on the Muslim court and heard discussions concerning 'oppressors', 'slavemasters' and 'enemies'. Such discussions, in his opinion, did not constitute religious services. It was one of his duties to enforce the constitution. This plaintiff, while in segregation after August 10, 1959, was charged with violations of prison discipline and remained in segregation until his transfer to Attica. He was later released therefrom and was returned to segregation about a year later.

 DISCUSSION

 The law to be applied requires no discussion. The decision involves purely the determination of an ultimate question of fact as indicated by the language of the Circuit Court in the opinion on remand. 'Either the plaintiffs were punished solely because of their religious beliefs or they were not. If they were, the defendant's conduct violates both the state statute and the United States Constitution. If the plaintiffs were punished for legitimate reasons, neither law is violated'.

 In our zeal for the protection of freedom of religious belief and practice, the particular circumstances involved may not be overlooked. A large prison population is committed to the custody of a minority of prison employees and authorities. Discipline is necessary for the protection of both the inmates and the public. Prison discipline may on occasions impinge upon fundamental rights. That a public officer has or will violate the constitutional safeguards of the freedom of religion, in this court's opinion must be established by convincing evidence. Such a charge is easy to make in an unverified complaint but the charging party must support it by more than inference or conjecture.

 Admittedly there existed at Clinton Prison an organization of inmates with inmate leadership dedicated to the formation of secret plans, strategy and policies and further dedicated to the extension of objectives of said organization throughout the state prison system. The organization required of its members irrevocable obedience to its commands and instructions; the undertaking of any mission which they might be called upon to perform and the assistance of a brother member 'in all difficulties'.

 Experience indicates that such an organization is a likely fomenting point for the unrest and frustration of confined inmates. It would seem to follow that the defendant might well be derelict in his duty if he knowingly allowed such an organization to function. The segregation of the three plaintiffs who were apparently considered as some of the leaders in said organization would seem to be a proper, if not a necessary, step in the insurance of discipline and good order within the prison. Plaintiffs' contention that such action was solely the result of vindictiveness on the part of the defendant because of the petty annoyances occasioned by their previous court proceedings or complaints is entirely rejected. From the number of applications for relief made to this court by state court prisoners confined at Clinton Prison, it can be readily concluded that petty annoyances, so occasioned, are a part of the defendant's daily routine.

 It should be emphasized that the Muslim Brotherhood, as it existed at Clinton Prison, is not a religion. Rather it is an organization which sets itself up as an adjunct to the Islamic faith. Membership in the Brotherhood and adherence to the principles thereto was the basis of the punishment visited upon the three plaintiffs rather than their belief in the religion of Islam.

 It is not often that membership in a secret organization, existing within a prison, is so clearly established as in these cases. Ordinarily such an organization is not disclosed by a written constitution or confirmed by the writings and testimony of members. Here the defendant, after the receipt of such evidence, acted in a deliberate and considered manner. The writings, seized on August 10, 1959, were examined and evaluated. It is plain that in the considered opinion of the prison authorities, such evaluation warranted affirmative action on their part. Five days later such action was taken as, in the opinion of the defendant, was required. This court finds no basis to conclude that the action, so taken, was violative of plaintiffs' rights.

 It is found that the plaintiffs in their individual actions have utterly failed to establish that the punishment or discipline imposed upon them by the defendant on August 15, 1959 was so imposed solely because of their religious beliefs. It is concluded that the complaint in each individual action should be and is dismissed, and it is

 SO ORDERED.

 APPENDIX

 CONSTITUTION

 NAME... MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD

 MOTTO... Forward ever --

 Backward never

 AIMS & OBJECTS

 1. To maintain ourselves and the Muslim Brotherhood as the vigorous, intellectual vanguard of the struggle for complete unity among our brothers by employing the unifying force of Islam.

 2. To secure & maintain the complete intellectual unity & awakening of our brothers by promoting the advantages of unity of action and organization through the study of: Islam; our history which has been concealed from us; the struggle for freedom being made by our brothers at home and abroad; and all other pertinent subjects.

 3. To build and train leaders for the future struggle so that each member upon his release shall be so equipped, that he will be able to successfully organize his own group or ...


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