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Perreault v. Michigan Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 1, 2018

SCOTT PERREAULT #722478, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHIGAN DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          ELLEN S. CARMODY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On May 10, 2018, the parties consented to the jurisdiction of this Court for all further proceedings, including trial and an order of final judgment. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1). Plaintiff alleges that he was denied a religious dietary accommodation in violation of his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). On June 27, 2018, this Court conducted a bench trial. As articulated herein, the Court finds for Defendants on both of Plaintiff's claims.

         I. Plaintiff's First Amendment Claims

         As the Supreme Court has observed, “convicted prisoners do not forfeit all constitutional protections by reason of their conviction and confinement in prison.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 545 (1979); see also, Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84 (1987) (“[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution”). Thus, while “lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights, ” inmates nevertheless retain the First Amendment protection to freely exercise their religion. See O'Lone v. Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 348 (1987). However, “simply because prison inmates retain certain constitutional rights does not mean that these rights are not subject to restrictions and limitations, ” Wolfish, 441 U.S. at 545, as operating a prison is a difficult task requiring “expertise, planning, and the commitment of resources, all of which are peculiarly within the province of the legislative and executive branches of government.” Turner, 482 U.S. at 85.

         Accordingly, courts have consistently held that issues involving “the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in [the] judgment [of prison officials] are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security” in most circumstances “should be accorded wide-ranging deference.” Flagner v. Wilkinson, 241 F.3d 475, 481 (6th Cir. 2001) (quoting Wolfish, 441 U.S. at 547); see also, Bazzetta v. McGinnis, 124 F.3d 774, 779 (6th Cir. 1997) (issues involving prison administration are properly resolved by prison officials, and the solutions at which they arrive should be accorded deference).

         When reviewing an inmate's claim of constitutional violation, courts must balance this policy of judicial restraint with the need to protect inmates' constitutional rights. See Turner, 482 U.S. at 85. The standard by which this balancing occurs was articulated by the Turner Court, which held that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Id. at 89. This standard represents a “reasonableness test less restrictive than that ordinarily applied to alleged infringements of fundamental constitutional rights.” Flagner, 241 F.3d at 481 (quoting Shabazz, 482 U.S. at 349). The Turner Court identified four factors that are relevant in determining the reasonableness of a challenged prison regulation:

1. there must be a valid, rational connection between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it;
2. whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates;
3. the impact that accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally; and
4. whether there are ready alternatives available that fully accommodate the prisoner's rights at de minimis cost to valid penological interests.

Turner, 482 U.S. at 89-91.

         Failure to satisfy the first factor renders the regulation unconstitutional, without regard to the remaining three factors. If the first factor is satisfied, the remaining three factors are considered and balanced together; however, they are “not necessarily weighed evenly, ” but instead represent “guidelines” by which the court can assess whether the actions at issue are reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. It should further be noted that the Turner standard is not a “least restrictive alternative” test requiring prison officials “to set up and then shoot down every conceivable alternative method of accommodating the claimant's constitutional complaint.” Instead, the issue is simply whether the policy at issue is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. Flagner, 241 F.3d at 484.

         With respect to which party bears the burden concerning the Turner analysis, the Supreme Court has held that “[t]he burden. . .is not on the State to prove the validity of prison regulations but on the prisoner to disprove it.” Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126, 132 (2003). This statement clearly places on the prisoner the burden as to the last three Turner factors, but says nothing as to which party bears the burden as to the initial factor. As subsequent courts have concluded, the burden to articulate the rationale for a challenged action must rest with prison officials. As the Sixth Circuit observed:

We note that while the burden is on the prisoner to disprove the validity of the regulation at issue. . .Defendants must still articulate their interest in the regulation. . .Otherwise, a prisoner would be forced to hypothesize any number of potential legitimate penological interests and then ...

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