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Sostre v. McGinnis

July 30, 1964

MARTIN X. SOSTRE, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
PAUL D. MCGINNIS, COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTION OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, AND WALTER H. WILKINS, WARDEN OF ATTICA STATE PRISON, ATTICA, NEW YORK, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES. WILLIAM SAMARION AND THOMAS L. BRATCHER, ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS, V. PAUL D. MCGINNIS, COMMISSIONER OF CORRECTION OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, AND WALTER H. WILKINS, WARDEN OF ATTICA STATE PRISON, ATTICA, NEW YORK, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Author: Hays

Before LUMBARD, Chief Judge, and WATERMAN and HAYS, Circuit Judges.

HAYS, Circuit Judge:

This is an action brought under 28 U.S.C. § 1343 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the appellants "in behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated." Plaintiffs are inmates of Attica State Prison at Attica, New York. Defendants are the Commissioner of Correction of the State of New York and the Warden of Attica State Prison.

Plaintiffs allege that they are "members" of the Islamic religion, known as Muslims, and followers of the sect led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. They complain that they have been denied certain rights with respect to the practice of their religion, including the right "to attend together congregational worship," the right to communicate with ministers of their faith and to have such ministers visit the prison and the right to have various religious publications and to carry these publications outside their cells.

The relief which the plaintiffs seek includes an order to the defendants to provide congregational religious services and an injunction against "making, promulgating, maintaining and enforcing any and all rules, regulations or practices which prohibit, prevent or impede Plaintiffs and other Muslim inmates of Attica Prison" from holding or attending congregational services, communicating and conferring with ministers of their religion, receiving religious literature and "carrying, displaying, discussing or otherwise using" such literature. The plaintiffs also ask that defendants be enjoined "[from] making, promulgating, maintaining or enforcing any and all rules, regulations or practices which inflict any punishment or loss of good time or other penalty on Plaintiffs or other Muslim inmates of Attica Prison solely because of the exercise of their freedom of worship in accordance with their faith."

They ask that defendants be ordered to "nullify" any loss of good time "or other similar punishment" heretofore imposed on account of plaintiffs' efforts to exercise "their freedom of religious worship."

The district court entered judgment for the defendants "on the claim of religious persecution" and otherwise dismissed the complaint on the ground that decision should be withheld while the New York courts were "given an opportunity to act to safeguard and define the plaintiffs' rights under New York law within the framework of New York's legitimate policies governing penal institutions."

While we reverse and remand for a slightly different disposition of the case, we are basically in agreement with the district court's holding that the state authorities, including its courts, must be given an opportunity to propose workable rules for the administration of the rights claimed by these plaintiffs. We believe, however, that the District Court should retain jurisdiction so that it may act if there should be any unreasonable delay on the part of the state.

We accept, as we must, since it is not clearly erroneous, the finding of the district court that the beliefs of the organization with which plaintiffs associate themselves constitute a "religion." However, it is obvious from the evidence in the record that the activities of the group are not exclusively religious*fn1

To the extent that it is a religion those who profess to follow its teachings have some measure of constitutional protection, even though they are confined to prison and are subject to prison discipline. Cooper v. Pate, 84 S. Ct. 1733 (1964); Pierce v. LaVallee, 293 F.2d 233 (2d Cir.1961). This protection is, however, subject to extensive limitations which would not be applicable were the plaintiffs not prisoners*fn2

Moreover, to concede that we are dealing here with a group which has some characteristics of a religious sect is separated by an enormous gap from the conclusion which the plaintiffs press upon us, the conclusion that since it is a religion this sect is subject to the same rules and regulations and must be treated in the same way as are Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

But before we reach the question of equality of treatment, we should point out that the practice of any religion, however orthodox its beliefs and however accepted its practices, is subject to strict supervision and extensive limitations in a prison. The principal problem of prison administration is the maintenance of discipline. Attica Prison is a maximum security prison designed for the detention of only the most desperate criminals. No romantic or sentimental view of constitutional rights or of religion should induce a court to interfere with the necessary disciplinary regime established by the prison officials. "[Except] in extreme cases, the courts will not interfere with the conduct of a prison, with the enforcement of its rules and regulations, or its discipline," Childs v. Pegelow, 321 F.2d 487, 489 (4th Cir. 1963), cert. denied, 376 U.S. 932, 84 S. Ct. 702, 11 L. Ed. 2d 652 (1964) (citing many supporting cases)*fn3 A prisoner has only such rights as can be exercised without impairing the requirements of prison discipline. "Lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, a retraction justified by the considerations underlying our penal system." Price v. Johnston, 334 U.S. 266, 285, 68 S. Ct. 1049, 1060, 92 L. Ed. 1356 (1948).

The differences between the beliefs of the Muslims, who, like the plaintiffs, are followers of Elijah Muhammad, and the beliefs of other religions, including, incidentally, the orthodox Islam of several hundred millions of Asians and Africans, are far more striking than the similarities.

Father Charles M. Whelan, testifying as an expert in Fulwood v. Clemmer, 206 F.Supp. 370, ...


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