A Richmond man convicted of armed robbery claims he has been held in isolation at Red Onion State Prison since February 2013 and is being denied access to religious services.
Lawyers for Alfonza Greenhill, 35, a Sufi Muslim, say he is confined to a 12-by-7-foot cell 23 hours a day and has refused to trim his “fist-length” beard that is required by his beliefs. They say he cannot attend weekly jumah prayer services or even watch them via closed-circuit television.
Prison officials have responded that Greenhill is refusing to earn access to the services by improving his behavior. His lawyers counter that dangling participation in religious services to motivate behavior violates his First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.
“The cruelty inherent to solitary confinement is amplified by prison policies that deny the restorative impact of religion to those enduring it,” said Daniel Greenfield, with the MacArthur Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago.
Greenhill sued prison officials in 2016, but U.S. District Court Judge James Jones, in Roanoke, threw out the lawsuit last year before it got to trial. Greenhill appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is being represented by Greenfield and his colleague, David Shapiro.
“This case lies at the crossroads of two issues of national concern: restrictions on religious liberty and ‘the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners ... in what comes close to a penal tomb,’” Greenfield wrote in a brief to the Richmond-based appeals court.
The Virginia Department of Corrections denies it uses solitary confinement. Responding to the appeal, the state contends that Greenhill is being held in “administrative segregation” because of misbehavior and that it’s his own doing that he cannot attend prayer services.
Jones did not question the sincerity of Greenhill’s beliefs or that the restrictions placed on him burdened his religious exercise. But the judge agreed with the state that the restrictions were designed to serve the Department of Corrections’ compelling interest in security.
“Mr. Greenhill had squandered the opportunity to observe certain religious practices — participating in jumah and growing a fist-length beard — by committing various disciplinary infractions, and ... under the circumstances, only religious rationing could compel compliant behavior,” Jones wrote.
Greenhill netted a 15-year sentence from Richmond Circuit Court for two counts of robbery, one count of carjacking and three firearm violations stemming from the June 5, 2007, carjacking of two Virginia Commonwealth University students in a school parking deck. Neither student was injured.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Virginia Department of Corrections, has told the court that there are two key questions raised by Greenhill’s appeal.
One is whether the Department of Corrections’ grooming policy limiting beard length is impermissible.
The other is “whether an inmate who practices Islam has an absolute right to access a television for religious purposes even though his violent behavior and consistent refusal to follow prison regulations has caused him to be placed in administrative segregation, where television access is a privilege to be earned.”
“As the district court correctly held, the answer to both questions is no,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote.
The state argues that although Greenhill alleges he is being held in segregation because of his religious beliefs, “nothing in the record supports that assertion.”
“What the record actually shows is that Greenhill’s religious practices are entirely unrelated to his current housing situation. Greenhill has consistently and repeatedly violated prison regulations, including convictions for assault and threat offenses, which required him to be segregated for prison safety reasons,” the state lawyers wrote.
The department says Greenhill is being held in administrative segregation and is classified as a Security Level S prisoner who must be managed in a segregated setting for reasons of security and order at the prison.
He can earn a less restrictive classification through the prison’s Segregation Reduction Step-Down Program.
Greenhill has been assigned SM-0 status, the most restrictive step in the program reserved for inmates with a history of disruptive behavior, fighting and/or violence toward staff members or other inmates.
An SM-0 inmate cannot participate in group activities with other inmates, have a television in his cell or hold a prison job.
In 2014, the department said Greenhill was reassigned and gained some privileges, including television.
Prison officials have learned that a prisoner’s ability to possess a television in his cell is something they covet “and is one of the biggest motivators for encouraging offenders to participate in the Step Down program,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote.
“Allowing him television access would defeat the purposes of the Step-Down Program, and this Court should defer to that professional judgment,” concluded the state lawyers to the appeals court.
Greenhill’s lawyers dispute the seriousness of his misconduct and argue that there is a simple solution to the problem: let him have use of a television briefly on Fridays so he can view the service.
“Denying Mr. Greenhill’s access to [the prison’s] weekly broadcast of jumah bears no reasonable relationship to the Department’s interests in security and rehabilitation. In fact, the reverse is true: religion has a demonstrated positive impact on security and rehabilitation,” they argue.
The Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in the case later this year.