RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A Fourth Circuit panel seemed willing Thursday to revive a Muslim inmate’s lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections over a ban on watching religious services on TV.
Alfonza Greenhill was convicted of assault, robbery, and firearms-related offenses and sentenced to over 15 years in prison in 2007. His time in behind bars has been fraught with behavioral issues, including tampering with prison equipment and assaulting guards, according to court records.
Now in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison, Greenhill says he is a practicing Muslim and the prison system is failing to protect his religious freedom by denying him access to a televised, weekly religious service know as Jumu’ah.
Greenhill took the state prison system to court, but a federal judge ruled in favor of Virginia and found that the restrictions were in the interest of security.
While the Fourth Circuit judges seemed troubled Thursday by Greenhill’s disciplinary record, they seemed more concerned with a corrections department program called Step-Down, which incentivizes good behavior by offering access to TV and denying it to inmates who misbehave.
The panel noted the right of inmates to practice their faith is protected by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
“It looks like a good, well thought out program, but it’s not good under RLUIPA,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer, a George W. Bush appointee.
The judge accused the Department of Corrections of using television as a “carrot on the end of a stick,” which he said crosses a line when it blocks access to faith services.
“If [Greenhill] does not choose to go to Step-Down or has infractions he’s still entitled to practice his religion,” Niemeyer said.
But Virginia Solicitor General Toby J. Heytens, who defended the state during Thursday’s hearing before the Richmond-based appeals court, stressed the depth of Greenhill’s disciplinary record, including several infractions which would bar him from getting access to a TV.
As Niemeyer listed off options Greenhill gave to remedy the situation, Heytens fired back. He said putting a TV in the inmate’s cell would require a guard to go into the cell and give him a TV, and Greenhill has a history of both assaulting guards and tampering with prison equipment.
Putting him in a cage in a classroom so he can watch on a stationary TV also puts guards at risk, Heytens said, and uses valuable resources while they have to escort him and monitor the process.
Heytens also pushed back on the idea of wheeling a TV near Greenhill’s cell so he can watch through the bars.
“This isn’t a normal cell, there aren’t bars,” he said, noting the inmate has been in solitary confinement, where the cells only have small slots in the door. “Wheeling a TV in front of the slots would obscure the guard’s view into the cell.”
But the judges noted there wasn’t any evidence in the original case record detailing these issues. The panel and the state’s attorney seemed to agree that the case should be remanded to further develop the evidentiary record.
In an apparent effort to speed up the process, Heytens stressed the issue Greenhill brought up was limited in scope, only impacting about 10 inmates across the state prison system.
“We’ve tried less restrictive measures, but it has not worked,” he said, noting again the inmate’s tendency to violate prison rules, sometimes violently, makes it hard to address the issue.
But Niemeyer held firm. The judge said the state’s responses to the prisoner’s remedies all amounted to an “illegal answer” under federal law.
“This is fine for safety, but not for RLUIPA,” he said.
Daniel Greenfield, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in Chicago, argued on behalf of Greenhill and also harped on Niemeyer’s point.
“While the department is entitled to incentivize TV access, they can’t use it to block access to religious services,” he said.
Niemeyer was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Agee, another George W. Bush appointee, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Kleeh, a Donald Trump appointee sitting by designation from his home court in the Northern District of West Virginia.
It is unclear when the judges will issue a ruling.