On May 15, 2009 an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, a Virginia Department of Corrections Institution, filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(A) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Roanoke Division. The plaintiff, initially ...
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On May 15, 2009 an inmate at Red Onion State Prison, a Virginia Department of Corrections Institution, filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-2(A) in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Roanoke Division. The plaintiff, initially litigating the matter pro se, asked the court for injunctive, declaratory, and monetary relief, claiming that the defendants had violated his constitutional right to freely exercise his religion while incarcerated. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the defendants had prevented him from practicing his religion by using their official positions at the prison to deny him access to a religious magazine that he claimed provided him with the only means to practice his religion. The plaintiff claimed that while the defendants had notified him that the magazine was being denied because of its potential to interfere with institutional security, the magazine was approved for delivery at other locations throughout the Virginia Department of Corrections. Furthermore, the plaintiff alleged that by disapproving entire issues of the magazine when only part of the magazine was potentially objectionable under the department's regulations, the department had not used the least restrictive means to achieve its interest.
On motion for summary judgment, the defendants argued that the plaintiff had not exhausted his administrative remedies as to 5 of his 6 claims as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a), which requires a prisoner to exhaust his internal administrative remedies before that prisoner is allowed to bring a § 1983 action. As to the plaintiff's first claim, the defendants argued that they had not violated his First Amendment rights because the prison action was reasonably related to penological interests, namely the maintenance security and good order within the correctional institution.
On February 26, 2010 the court granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motions for summary judgment. As a first matter, the court held that the plaintiff had exhausted his administrative remedies, which enabled him to seek relief in the courts. However, the court found that the plaintiff was prevented from bringing a claim for damages against the defendants in their official capacities by the doctrine of absolute immunity. The court found that questions of material fact existed as to whether the defendants had substantially burdened the plaintiff's free exercise of his religion. Furthermore, the court found that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether or not the policy of failing to deliver the religious magazine satisfied a compelling state interest. The court next noted that even if the defendants were able to prove that the denial of the magazine vindicated a compelling state interest, the defendants had failed to prove that the means chosen to vindicate the compelling state interest were not the least restrictive available.
However, the court found that the law was not clearly established at the time so "that a reasonable person in the defendant's positions would have known that such conduct was in violation of such a right." Accordingly, the court found that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity in their personal capacities for damages and granted their motion for summary judgment as to that issue. Nevertheless, the court denied the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the claim for injunctive relief brought by the plaintiff. It should be noted that the defendants had sought to have the issues of the magazine denied to the plaintiff put under seal during the course of the litigation, so as to not allow the plaintiff to see the material they contended constituted a threat to the security of the correctional institution. The court granted the motion to seal.
On November 23, 2010 the court entered a consent order making note that the parties to the case had reached a settlement in the matter. Accordingly, the court dismissed the action with prejudice. However, the court retained jurisdiction in order to enforce the parties' agreement. The docket does not reflect the terms of the settlement agreement. However, according to a report filled by the Virginia Attorney General with the Governor of Virginia, this case "caused the Department of Corrections to modify its procedures regarding publication review."Justin Benson - 11/12/2011