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Sabir v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 27, 2019

RAFIQ SABIR & JAMES CONYERS, Plaintiffs,
v.
D.K. WILLIAMS. et. al., Defendants.

          RULING ON MOTION TO DISMISS

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Rafiq Sabir and James Conyers (collectively “Plaintiffs”) have sued D.K. Williams and Herman Quay in their individual and official capacities and Hugh Hurwitz in his official capacity (collectively “Defendants”) for declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatotory, nominal, and punitive damages, costs, and attorney's fees for violations of the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb et seq (“RFRA”). Second Amended Complaint, ECF No. 36 (“Second Am. Compl.”), at 13-15.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint, Motion to Dismiss Second Amended Complaint, ECF No. 54. Defendants have since supplemented their motion to dismiss twice because the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred Mr. Conyers to a lower security institution, see First Motion to Supplement Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 72, and Mr. Sabir to another federal facility based on his alleged participation in a hunger strike, see Second Motion to Supplement Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 76.

         For the foregoing reasons, the Court DENIES the motion to dismiss, GRANTS the first supplemental motion to dismiss, and DENIES the second supplemental motion to dismiss.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         According to Plaintiffs, “[a] central tenent of Islam is the obligation for adult Muslims to pray-perform salah-five times each day.” Second Am. Compl. at ¶ 1. And “[m]any Muslims also believe that it is vital to perform salah in a group setting if there are other Muslims in the vicinity during prayer times.” Id. The Friday early afternoon payer allegedly is the most important and “many Muslims believe must be prayed in a congregation.” Id. at ¶ 19. For these practitioners, “engaging in congregational prayer with the maximum number of practicing Muslims possible is required because such prayers multiplies the blessings and utility of prayer.” Id.

         According to Plaintiffs, the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution (“FCI Danbury”) is comprised of three institutions: (1) “Federal Prison Camp Danbury, a minimum-security prison housing approximately 194 persons;” (2) “Federal Satellite Low Danbury, a low-security all-female facility housing approximately 115 persons; and (3) “FCI Danbury, a low-security [Federal Board of Prisons] facility housing approximately 836 incarcerated persons.” Id. at ¶ 27. Plaintiffs allege that the FCI Danbury facility has several recreational facilities that “includes a recreation yard, weight room, gymnasium, bathroom, wellness room, hobbycraft, music room, video viewing area with game tables, the chapel facilities, and several offices.” Id. at ¶ 29. Moreover, Plaintiffs allege that “the medical area, food services, educational and housing facilities, laundry, the barber shop, and the prison work program area” are all accessible to incarcerated persons. Id.

         Both Plaintiffs state that they are practicing Muslims that “share the sincerely-held belief that their religion requires them to engage in daily congregational prayer whenever possible.” Id. at ¶ 2. Mr. Sabir claims that he has been a practicing Muslim for forty years and resided at FCI Danbury from June 2014 until July 12, 2019. Id. at ¶ 12; Declaration of Cheryl Magnusson, Ex. A, ECF No. 76-1. Mr. Conyers claims that he has been a practicing Muslim for twenty-one years and resided at FCI Danbury from September 2016 until June 20, 2019. Second Am. Compl. at ¶ 13; Declaration of Cheryl Magnusson, Ex. A., ECF No. 72-1. Plaintiffs allege that “approximately 150 of the persons incarcerated at FCI Danbury currently identify as Muslim.” Compl. at ¶ 28.

         While the Federal Bureau of Prisons allegedly does not have a formal policy banning congregational prayer, Plaintiffs allege that “the warden of each correctional faciltiy within [the Federal Bureau of Prisons] is tasked with determining whether any specific religious practice jeopardizes the facility's safety and security.” Id. at ¶ 24. Plaintiffs allege that “the warden is authorized to temporarily restrict the practice and/or identify an alternative practice.” Id.

         A. Factual Allegations

         On March 24, 2014, Maureen Baird, then-Warden of FCI Danbury, allegedly “issued a policy that categorically limited the ability of Plaintiffs and other Muslim incarcerated pesons to engage in congregational prayer.” Id. at ¶¶ 3 (citing FCI Danbury Institution Supplement No. DAN 5360.09F § 3(b)(2)); ¶ 30 (citing the text of the “Policy”). The Policy prohibits prayer in groups of more than two in all parts of FCI Danbury, except the chapel facility. Id. Due to limited chapel availability, Plaintiffs allege that “the Policy effectively bans congregational prayer in FCI Danbury, making it impossible for Plaintiffs and other Muslim incarcerated person to perform salah in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Id. at ¶ 3.

         In October 2014, while engaged in prayer with several other incarcerated persons in FCI Danbury's auditorium, Mr. Sabir alleges that a corrections officer dispersed the group and warned Mr. Sabir that he would face discipline if he violated the prison policy by engaging in congregational prayer. Id. at ¶ 5. Mr. Sabir alleges that he and his fellow inmates “conducted themselves peacefully, respectfully, and cooperatively, and they did not interfere with other incarcerated persons or the functioning and operation of FCI Danbury.” Id. at ¶ 36. When told that further congregational prayer would result in discipline, Mr. Sabir and other incarcerated persons allegedly “informed the corrections officers that their religion demanded they engage in congressional prayer five times a day and that the chapel facility was not available for them during all those times.” Id. at ¶ 40. But Plaintiffs allege that corrections officers merely reiterated the terms of the Policy. Id. Since the incident, Mr. Sabir alleges that he has been “fearful that if he engages in daily congregational prayer he will be subjected to discipline and sanction.” Id. at ¶ 41.

         In Spring 2017, Plaintiffs allege that “officials at FCI Danbury circulated a flyer to the incarcerated persons which cited to the Policy and stated that ‘group prayer of 3 or more is restricted to the Chapel' and ‘Staff Will be Enforcing this Policy.'” Id. at ¶ 46.

         In April 2018, Plaintiffs allege that “another group of Muslim incarcerated persons were threatened with discipline for engaging in congregational prayer in violation of the Policy.” Id. at ¶ 5. Plaintiffs allege that several staff members approached “several Muslim incarcerated persons who were engaged in congregational prayer and informed them that they would be issued disciplinary write-ups and face other sanctions if they continued to engage in congregational prayer.” Id. at ¶ 45.

         Plaintiffs also allege that “at least two other Muslim incarcerated persons at FCI Danbury have filed grievances against the Policy and its restriction on congregational prayer.” Id. at ¶ 46.

         Due to these and other incidents, Plaintiffs allege that “Plaintiffs and other Muslim incarcerated persona at FCI Danbury are unable to adhere to their sincerely-held religious beliefs and engage in daily congregational prayer, ” which “imposes a substantial burden on Plaintiff's exercise of religion.” Id. at ¶ 6.

         Plaintiffs allege that FCI Danbury, a low-security facility, otherwise allows incarcerated persona a high degree of personal autonomy. Id. at ¶ 28. Indeed, Plaintiffs allege that “[m]any of the housing units do not have locks on the doors of the living quarters.” Id. Plaintiffs also allege that incarcerated persons “routinely gather in large groups for prison-approved activities such as inmate-led fitness classes, card games, and sports, some of which can involve over 20 incarcerated persons at a time.” Id.

         Although FCI Danbury permits congregational prayer in the chapel facility, Plaintiffs allege that there is limited access to the facility, which “is only open when chapel staff are present and the facility's rooms are not already occupied or reserved by other individuals.” Id. at ¶ 32. Plaintiffs also allege that the prison staff apply the Policy strictly in recreational areas but not in other areas, with the application of the Policy varying widely based on the staff members working at that time. Id. at ¶¶ 47, 50.

         During his time at Federal Medical Center Devens, Mr. Sabir alleges that the Warden permitted open congregational prayer throughout the facility and without restriction. Id. at ¶ 25. Mr. Conyers alleges that incarcerated persons at other Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities, “including Federal Medical Center Butner, Federal Prison Camp at Fort Dix, ” permitted daily congregational prayer. Id. at ¶ 26.

         Plaintiffs maintain a “sincerely-held religious belief that if two or more Muslims are together at a time of required prayer, they must pray together behind one prayer leader; and that it is not possible to break up into smaller groups.” Id. at ¶ 23. Due to their inability to perform congregational prayer, Plaintiffs allege that they “have been forced to choose between acting in accordance with their sincere religious beliefs and facing discipline at the prison, including possible solitary confinement and loss of other privileges, ” which the Plaintiffs allege has caused them mental and physical stress. Id. at ¶ 44.

         Plaintiffs allege that they have exhausted all grievance processes and administrative remedies available to them. Id. at ¶¶ 51-54.

         B. Procedural History

         On May 8, 2017, Mr. Sabir, then proceeding pro se, filed a Complaint in this case. Complaint, ECF No. 1.

         That same day, Mr. Sabir moved to proceed in forma pauperis and to appoint counsel. Motion for Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis, ECF No. 2; Motion to Appoint Counsel, ECF No. 3.

         On May 25, 2017, the Court denied the motion to appoint counsel and motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Order, ECF No. 5.

         On June 5, 2017, Mr. Sabir moved for class action status. Motion for Class Action Status, ECF No. 6.

         On June 29, 2017, the case was dismissed because Mr. Sabir failed to pay the filing fee. Order Dismissing Case, ECF No. 7.

         On July 21, 2017, Mr. Sabir moved to re-open the case. Motion to Reopen Case, ECF No. 9.

         On October 19, 2017, the Court granted the motion to re-open the case, but dismissed the case in an initial review order. Order, ECF No. 11.

         On November 30, 2017, Mr. Sabir moved to amend his Complaint. Motion to Amend, ECF No. 15.

         On December 19, 2017, the Court granted Mr. Sabir's motion to re-open the case and amend his Complaint, allowing Mr. Sabir's First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act claims to proceed against Defendants in their official ...


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