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6 Incarcerated New Yorkers Successfully Sue to View the Eclipse—But What About Everyone Else?

“Everything seems to come from a punitive disposition when it comes to things like seeing the eclipse. It’s like, ‘Oh, would this be something that they’ll enjoy? Let’s find a way to stop that, to take it away.’”

(Flickr / ivva)

On Thursday, New York's prison agency agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by incarcerated New Yorkers who argued a system-wide lockdown during next week's total solar eclipse violated their constitutional right to exercise their religions. As first reported by Hell Gate last week, the six men, all of whom are incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, had asked that they be allowed to observe the eclipse from their prison yard, citing its significance to their religious practices, which ranged from Santeria to Seventh-Day Adventism to Islam. As part of the settlement, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) will provide each of them with eclipse glasses, and they'll be able to gather in the prison yard to watch this rare solar event. 

For now, only the six men at Woodbourne have permission to watch the eclipse. But the settlement does open the door for requests from other people for whom the eclipse is religiously significant to be considered, and could guide DOCCS's consideration of those requests. Chris McArdle, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said DOCCS would be foolish not to allow others with similar religious claims to watch.

"It is going to be a very bad look for the Department of Corrections if they have conceded that these six people are allowed to watch it based on religious grounds, and then are stopping similarly situated individuals at other prisons, or the same prison, from watching on the same grounds," McArdle told Hell Gate. 

The six named plaintiffs had called on the court to act quickly when filing their complaint last Friday, and McArdle suggested that the subsequent onslaught of media attention on the case from national outlets after Hell Gate reported on the lockdown, added pressure to the settlement process.

After the lawsuit was filed, some of the plaintiffs were told that their previously rejected requests to watch the eclipse were being reconsidered. On Wednesday evening, DOCCS informed the two plaintiffs who practice Santeria that their requests were now approved, while denying the two Christians. Those denials are now revoked by the settlement. In a statement, a DOCCS spokesperson told Hell Gate, "In advance of the lawsuit being filed, the Department had begun performing the requisite analysis regarding religious accommodations received to view the eclipse, including an analysis on requests that were received from the six named individuals. We continued our analysis and review during the pendency of the lawsuit. The Department has agreed to permit the six individuals to view the eclipse, while plaintiffs' Counsel's firm has agreed to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice as to the six named individuals, among other things. The lawsuit came to an appropriate resolution."

Plaintiff Jeremy Zielinski told Hell Gate he was encouraged by DOCCS staff to take the two partial approvals as a win on Wednesday night but he wasn’t having it. "My response was basically, 'No, everyone goes or no one goes,'" said Zielinski, who had initially argued that every person in custody should be able to watch, regardless of their religious relationship to the eclipse. Plaintiff David Haigh also speculated that DOCCS was selectively granting approvals to people from faith groups with fewer practitioners. "All of the groups they appear to be granting permission to are small groups. They don't represent the larger body of religions in prison," Haigh said. "Most [people] are either Muslim or one of the Christian faiths. If they granted it to them, a larger group of men would most likely want to view the eclipse. DOCCS doesn't want to have to handle that many inmates."

The settlement isn't a win for all incarcerated New Yorkers: Those who want to marvel at the historic solar eclipse for non-religious reasons will not find relief. Plaintiffs who spoke to Hell Gate emphasized, before the settlement was reached, that they wanted everyone to be able to watch.

"We've got people who don't believe in God, and they still want to watch the eclipse," said plaintiff Jean-Marc Desmarat. "They want to be able to watch it, they want to be part of something magnificent." 

D'uone Morrison, who is incarcerated at Elmira Correctional Facility, told Hell Gate that he also would've loved to watch. But he never even received the memo about the lockdown, which was addressed to the state's entire incarcerated population. When he asked a corrections officer about the lockdown after Hell Gate informed him of the memo, he said the officer asked how he knew about it.

"Everything seems to come from a punitive disposition when it comes to things like seeing the eclipse," said Morrison "It's like, 'Oh, would this be something that they'll enjoy? Let's find a way to stop that, to take it away.'"

"When I wake up in the morning, in most prisons, you can't even see the sky," continued Morrison. "These things affect people, this is what they call sensory deprivation. To deprive a person of outside activities like seeing a phenomenon that takes place only every so often, that doesn't help a person's humanity grow—you're actually dwarfing it."

Still, Morrison was heartened to hear that so many people and news outlets were paying attention to the eclipse lawsuit. He believes a culture shift is taking place when it comes to public attention paid to incarcerated people. 

"This story would've been a footnote like 15 years ago," he said. "But in America in this day and age, everybody has somebody that's in prison, somebody that they care about and love."

As the lawsuit gained attention on radio, TV, and in newspapers accessible at Woodbourne, it caused a stir at the prison, according to many of the plaintiffs. 

"Inmates are coming up to me and saying, 'Your name, your name is on the radio, what's going on?'" Haigh told Hell Gate on Wednesday.  

The attention was wholly unexpected for Zielinski, who first successfully requested that he be allowed to watch the eclipse as an atheist. 

"We're the talk of the jail right now, as you might expect," Zielinski told Hell Gate by phone, before the settlement was reached. Zielinski said a Woodbourne corrections officer even congratulated him and shook his hand. 

But the attention didn't land as well for all the plaintiffs. Desmarat told Hell Gate that he was "verbally assaulted" yesterday by another corrections officer who called him "all kinds of profane words" after commenting on the lawsuit. Desmarat also said that since the lawsuit was filed, messages from his children, which he usually receives daily through his prison-issued tablet, are no longer arriving, and he believes other messages he's sent have been blocked. Still, Desmarat emphasized that being part of the lawsuit gave him "a sense of having a purpose, helping my fellow brothers with an opportunity we are being denied."

On Wednesday, Desmarat added that being able to observe and pray in community during the eclipse would be particularly meaningful to him as a Muslim who is concerned about Israel's war on Palestine. 

"When we go to masjid to pray, we as Muslims as a community at Woodbourne, we feel the situation happening in Gaza is terrible," said Desmarat. "When we do congregate, we pray for both sides so that we can have peace." 

(Photo credit: Flickr / ivva)

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