482 U.S. 342 (1987), 85-1722, O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz

Docket Nº:No. 85-1722
Citation:482 U.S. 342, 107 S.Ct. 2400, 96 L.Ed.2d 282, 55 U.S.L.W. 4792
Party Name:O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz
Case Date:June 09, 1987
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 342

482 U.S. 342 (1987)

107 S.Ct. 2400, 96 L.Ed.2d 282, 55 U.S.L.W. 4792



Estate of Shabazz

No. 85-1722

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 1987

Argued March 24, 1987




Respondents, prison inmates and members of the Islamic faith, brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 contending that two policies adopted by New Jersey prison officials prevented them from attending Jumu'ah, a Muslim congregational service held on Friday afternoons, and thereby violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The first such policy, Standard 853, required inmates in respondents' custody classifications to work outside the buildings in which they were housed and in which Jumu'ah was held, while the second, a policy memorandum, prohibited inmates assigned to outside work from returning to those buildings during the day. The Federal District Court concluded that no constitutional violation had occurred, but the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded, ruling that the prison policies could be sustained only if the State showed that the challenged regulations were intended to and did serve the penological goal of security, and that no reasonable method existed by which prisoners' religious rights could be accommodated without creating bona fide security problems. The court also held that the expert testimony of prison officials should be given due weight on, but is not dispositive of, the accommodation issue.


1. The Court of Appeals erred in placing the burden on prison officials to disprove the availability of alternative methods of accommodating prisoners' religious rights. That approach fails to reflect the respect and deference the Constitution allows for the judgment of prison administrators. P. 350.

2. The District Court's findings establish that the policies challenged here are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, and therefore do not offend the Free Exercise Clause. Both policies have a rational connection to the legitimate governmental interests in institutional order and security invoked to justify them, as is demonstrated by findings that Standard 853 was a response to critical overcrowding and was designed to ease tension and drain on the facilities during that part of the day when the inmates were outside, and that the policy memorandum was necessary since returns from outside work details generated congestion and delays at the main gate, a high-risk area, and since the

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need to decide return requests placed pressure on guards supervising outside work details. Rehabilitative concerns also support the policy memorandum, in light of testimony indicating that corrections officials sought thereby to simulate working conditions and responsibilities in society. Although the policies at issue may prevent some Muslim prisoners from attending Jumu'ah, their reasonableness is supported by the fact that they do not deprive respondents [107 S.Ct. 2402] of all forms of religious exercise, but instead allow participation in a number of Muslim religious ceremonies. Furthermore, there are no obvious, easy alternatives to the policies, since both of respondents' suggested accommodations would, in the judgment of prison officials, have adverse effects on the prison institution. Placing all Muslim inmates in inside work details would be inconsistent with the legitimate concerns underlying Standard 853, while providing weekend labor for Muslims would require extra supervision that would be a drain on scarce human resources. Both proposed accommodations would also threaten prison security by fostering "affinity groups" likely to challenge institutional authority, while any special arrangements for one group would create a perception of favoritism on the part of other inmates. Pp. 350-353.

3. Even where claims are made under the First Amendment, this Court will not substitute its judgment on difficult and sensitive matters of institutional administration for the determinations of those charged with the formidable task of running a prison. P. 353.

782 F.2d 416, reversed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, O'CONNOR, and SCALIA, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post p. 354.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider once again the standard of review for prison regulations claimed to inhibit the exercise of constitutional rights. Respondents, members of the Islamic

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faith, were prisoners in New Jersey's Leesburg State Prison.1 They challenged policies adopted by prison officials which resulted in their inability to attend Jumu'ah, a weekly Muslim congregational service regularly held in the main prison building and in a separate facility known as "the Farm." Jumu'ah is commanded by the Koran, and must be held every Friday after the sun reaches its zenith and before the Asr, or afternoon prayer. See Koran 62:9-10; Brief for Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin et al. as Amici Curiae 18-31. There is no question that respondents' sincerely held religious beliefs compelled attendance at Jumu'ah. We hold that the prison regulations here challenged did not violate respondents' rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Inmates at Leesburg are placed in one of three custody classifications. Maximum security and "gang minimum" security inmates are housed in the main prison building, and those with the lowest classification -- full minimum -- live in "the Farm." Both respondents were classified as gang minimum security prisoners when this suit was filed, and respondent Mateen was later classified as full minimum.

Several changes in prison policy prompted this litigation. In April, 1983, the New Jersey Department of Corrections issued Standard 853, which provided that inmates could no longer move directly from maximum security to full minimum status, but were instead required to first spend a period of time in the intermediate gang minimum status. App. 147. This change was designed to redress problems that had arisen when inmates were transferred directly from the restrictive maximum security status to full minimum status, with its markedly higher level of freedom. Because [107 S.Ct. 2403] of serious overcrowding in the main building, Standard 853 further mandated that gang minimum inmates ordinarily be assigned jobs outside the main building. Ibid. These inmates work in details of 8 to 15 persons, supervised by one guard.

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Standard 853 also required that full minimum inmates work outside the main institution, whether on or off prison grounds, or in a satellite building such as the Farm. Ibid.

Corrections officials at Leesburg implemented these policies gradually and, as the District Court noted, with some difficulty. Shabazz v. O'Lone, 595 F.Supp. 928, 929 (NJ 1984). In the initial stages of outside work details for gang minimum prisoners, officials apparently allowed some Muslim inmates to work inside the main building on Fridays so that they could attend Jumu'ah. This alternative was eventually eliminated in March, 1984, in light of the directive of Standard 853 that all gang minimum inmates work outside the main building.

Significant problems arose with those inmates assigned to outside work details. Some avoided reporting for their assignments, while others found reasons for returning to the main building during the course of the workday (including their desire to attend religious services). Evidence showed that the return of prisoners during the day resulted in security risks and administrative burdens that prison officials found unacceptable. Because details of inmates were supervised by only one guard, the whole detail was forced to return to the main gate when one prisoner desired to return to the facility. The gate was the site of all incoming foot and vehicle traffic during the day, and prison officials viewed it as a high security risk area. When an inmate returned, vehicle traffic was delayed while the inmate was logged in and searched.

In response to these burdens, Leesburg officials took steps to ensure that those assigned to outside details remained there for the whole day. Thus, arrangements were made to have lunch and required medications brought out to the prisoners, and appointments with doctors and social workers were scheduled for the late afternoon. These changes proved insufficient, however, and prison officials began to study alternatives. After consulting with the director of social services, the director of professional services, and the

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prison's imam and chaplain, prison officials in March, 1984, issued a policy memorandum which prohibited inmates assigned to outside work details from returning to the prison during the day except in the case of emergency.

The prohibition of returns prevented Muslims assigned to outside work details from attending Jumu'ah. Respondents filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the prison policies unconstitutionally denied them their Free Exercise rights under the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court, applying the standards announced in an earlier decision of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, concluded that no constitutional violation had occurred. The District Court decided that Standard 853 and the March, 1984, prohibition on returns "plausibly advance" the goals of security, order, and rehabilitation. 595 F.Supp. at 934. It rejected alternative arrangements suggested by respondents, finding that "no less restrictive alternative could be adopted without potentially compromising a legitimate institutional objective." Ibid.


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