WINFIELD, Kan. — On July 23, 2018, nine Ásatrú prisoners in Kansas filed a religious discrimination suit. The named defendants include the Winfield Correctional Facility, the Kansas Department of Corrections, and the Secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections. The suit also named eight individual guards at the Winfield Correctional Facility.
The nine prisoners charged that correctional officers had seized religious and other materials. They also alleged that the prison chaplain had already approved the religious material, and that the prison officials justified the seizure on the grounds that the seized material had “ questionable content.”
The suit alleged the prison officials restricted where the Asatru prisoners could stand and what they could say on the prison’s religious grounds. No signage on those grounds restricts the space where inmates can stand.
According to KWCH, a local TV station, prisoner Marcus Drake, who was convicted for identity theft, forgery, charged that prison officials had punished him for altering a letter in one of the documents. They accused him of changing the letter “o” to form an Aryan cross. Drake alleged that he did not make an Aryan Cross, but manually substituted the word, “our,” for the word, “for,” when he corrected a typo.
A google search for an image of an “Aryan Cross” revealed something that looks like a bull’s eye. It has equal length vertical and horizontal arms as well as a ring around the cross. Its arms extend slightly beyond the ring. This cross looks like the symbol for target practice. According to Wikimedeia.org, this image was adopted by the Nazis and is illegal to display in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Brazil, Israel, Ukraine, Russia and some other countries.
A Celtic Cross appears quite similar, but frequently has a much longer vertical arm, particularly when used as a grave marker. The two images are frequently confused.
When officials seized materials, a disciplinary hearing ensued. That hearing could have an impact on their eventual release dates.
The prisoners had at first asked for $22,400 per prisoner in damages. They based their $22,400 claim per individual on the assumption the disciplinary hearing would delay their release by at least one year. The estimated number is probable annual individual earnings during that one year.
In the original filing, Drake alleged that prison officials fined him $10 and restricted his movements for 60 days. During those 60 days, he was restricted to his bunk for 17. This would result in a loss of Drake’s prison pay.
On July 26, the prisoners filed an amended lawsuit, which asked for $150,000 in damages for each of the nine prisoners. This new claim for damages arose from estimates of potential losses to their prison earnings. Prisoners depend on their prison earnings to start their life on the outside.
One local media outlet, KWCH, mentioned that Ásatrú has another name “Heathenism.” It also mentioned its links to white supremacists, but provided no other context.
Another media outlet provided a more balanced discussion of Ásatrú prisoners. Local paperThe Crowley-Courier-Traveler mentioned that “many Ásatrú groups have also denounced those [white supremacists] beliefs.” It also discussed the founding of Ásatrú in Iceland in 1972. It, however, confused the founding of the Ásatrú Free Assembly with that of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly. The Courier Traveler pointed out that Ásatrú prisoners frequently bring religious discrimination cases against prison officials.
The suit alleged that prison officials violated both the First (freedom of religion) and Fourth Amendment (no unreasonable search and seizure). It raised Fourteenth Amendment (due process) questions. Prison officials failed to provide evidence of potential wrongdoing associated with the seized material.
In 2013, the Winfield Correctional Facility was categorized as a minimum security prison. It has a capacity of 544 adult males. More recent data was not available. The prison has been in operation since 1996. Before that date, it was the Winfield State Hospital and Training Center for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. For most of the 20th Century, it was the city’s major employer.