CARSON CITY, Nev. — Pagan inmates at the Lovelock Correctional Center may finally see their day in court. Three judges on the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled in March that a case dating back to the 2009 destruction of an outdoor Pagan worship area will be able to move forward. A lower court had made a summary judgment against the plaintiffs, but the appeals court panel has now found that there is, in fact, enough open questions to allow for a more detailed look at the evidence.Brian DeBarr, Chioke Gadsden, and Nathan Peterson were all inmates at Lovelock. They used an outdoor garden space to practice their Pagan religions. In 2009, a construction project destroyed that space, according to 2009 court papers. Nevada Department of Corrections Public Information Officer Brooke Keast explained that the focus of that work was a walkway. She said:
It’s a dirt walkway lined with railroad ties. Underneath the walkway are the pipes leading from one building to the next. All the utilities were run underground when they built on to the facility. The walkway and areas near it were dug up when one of the pipes had corroded and was in need of replacement. About 30 to 40 feet of pipe had rotted and was replaced and then the grounds were replaced as well.
At the time, the inmates claimed that while they were aware of the construction project, the area of effect wasn’t supposed to include the sacred spaces. They filed official grievances and, per the relevant regulations, only included one specific complaint for each one. While the exact number of grievances filed isn’t clear, it was enough that prison administrators decided that the inmates were filing just to harass staff members. And, that would be an abuse of the grievance process.
However, the crux of the two lawsuits — which were later consolidated into a single action — was not the destruction of the site or the lack of notification, but the punishments the inmates received for complaining in the first place. DeBarr was transferred from Lovelock, which is near Reno, to High Desert State Prison, which is north of Las Vegas. He believes that was done in retaliation for the grievances that he filed.
The plaintiffs contend that their First Amendment rights were violated throughout the entire process.Today, the outdoor area still exists and is being used by Pagan prisoners. According to Keast, it’s a space about 40 by 80 feet. “We have approximately 60 people who claim to be Pagan,” Keast said. “Of those inmates, 16 are considered in the ‘solitary group’ and spend time in the gardens. By ‘solitary group’ I mean, they dislike the worship offered for whatever reason, so they go to the garden to worship alone. They often group up in the ‘solitary’ group as well which is rather counterproductive if one wants to worship alone – but whether alone or in a group, they have the garden to enjoy as do the other Pagan inmates.”
In addition to that space, Keast said, there are groups of Pagans who worship together in indoor spaces. Some of these activities are facilitated by outside volunteers, as they are in other correctional facilities. She would not provide the names of any of these volunteers, citing privacy concerns.
While there appears to be access to worship opportunities for Pagans incarcerated at Lovelock now, it still remains whether three Pagan inmates were punished for complaining when that religious freedom rights were curtailed. The justices on the appeals panel did not buy the argument that the grievances were filed solely to harass. In that ruling, the justices wrote that the three men “engaged in the prison’s informal resolution procedure before filing their grievances.”
Prison administrators based their position in part on what they called “duplicative” grievances in violations of the rules governing that procedure. However, the justices noted that the law did not actually forbid duplication. It “only limits the number of ‘unfounded frivolous or vexatious grievances,’ a disputed issue in this case.”
That’s just the kind of issue that infuriates Rev. Patrick McCollum, who has been party to lawsuits aimed at providing equal access to worship opportunities for Pagan prisoners. In an email to The Wild Hunt, he said:
Unfortunately the prison system is pre-loaded with prejudice, as its roots are deep in Christian theology. The penal system is based on penance and redemption and the cells and inmate activities are based on monasticism. The courts have mostly deferred to the penal system’s judgment on these issues.
While not intentional (in most cases), when religions like Paganism ask for sacred space and such, it just doesn’t compute! The whole system is simply not set up for that!
In order to counter inmate non-Christian religious requests, the system itself has developed a complex system of derailing grievances and such and has actually created a built in punishment for inmates going against the dominant Christian standard. This is what happened in Nevada.
In California years ago, an inmate received six months in solitary confinement for filing a grievance to have Pagan sacred space in prison. The system has a long way to go, but the inmates in this case are in the right, and hopefully over time will win.
The reason the court ruled to let this particular case go forward after it was denied, is the direct result of McCollum v California and Hartman v the California Department of Corrections. Both are cases that we brought forward. Both of these cases clearly showed the court with evidence, that the system is skewed around Pagan grievances, Pagan sacred space, and Pagan religious accommodation. Progress is slow, but gradually moving forward!
Rev. Selena Fox said that leaders of the Lady Liberty League, the religious rights advocacy organization sponsored by Circle Sanctuary, have taken an interest in the case as well. However, she personally doesn’t know any Pagans working in the Nevada state correctional system.
This case may or may not have lasting legal implications, but its outcome will certainly have an impact on at least one of the plaintiffs. DeBarr is now back in Lovelock, and as he’s serving a life sentence. And he is likely to see more construction projects planned at the facility in the future.