Ronald Reiske, a Wiccan prisoner incarcerated in a Connecticut prison, thought it reasonable that the correctional facility provide him with the necessary materials and equipment to practice his Wiccan religion – including 14 feet of rope, candles, oils, a three-by-two-foot pile of wood, a pendant cord, and a “summoning horn.” Should he have such things in prison? What threat might rope, candles, combustible oils, a pile of wood, and the rest of the items pose in such a facility? Reverend Anthony Bruno, Director of Religious Services for the Department of Corrections (DOC), found that they were indeed a substantial threat and denied many of the requests. Requests for less threatening items were also denied because similar items were already available for purchase in the commissary.
Displeased with the result, Reiske – whose record includes charges for fighting, gang affiliation, security tampering, flagrant disobedience, and possession of contraband – did what many other inmates do when they don’t get what they want. He sued. According to Reiske, the DOC’s denial substantially burdened his practice of his Wiccan religion in violation of the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He also asserted an Equal Protection violation under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court determined that only the oils and pendant cord claims should be considered on the merits, because Reiske failed to exhaust his administrative remedies for the remaining requested items. That is, Reiske could have, but did not, pursue the available “grievance” remedy for the rest of the items.
All of Reiske’s remaining claims failed on the merits. Reiske was unable to prevail on his First Amendment claim for several reasons. First, the oils would pose a threat to safety: “Historically, oils have been problematic in correctional facilities. Inmates have used oils to interfere with the odor-detecting abilities of canines, used them as a form of currency or barter, and combined them with other substances to create combustible materials.” Second, Reiske could use other oils available in the commissary instead of the requested oils, and provided no reason why this alternative would not be suitable. Third, allowing Reiske to have a special cord (when all other inmates have to wear their religious medallions on a bead chain available for purchase in the commissary) “could lead to unrest among the inmates and threaten institutional security” due to a perceived “favoritism.” Finally, Reiske could exercise his Wiccan beliefs through alternative means, “including meeting with a spiritual advisor, reading written or listening to recorded materials, creating a small shrine in his cell, and using tarot cards.”
The court rejected the RLUIPA claim because there was no evidence of how the denial of the oils and pendant cord would burden (much less, substantially burden) Reiske’s religious exercise. It noted that, “the record contains no evidence of the precise use of the oils in Reiske’s religious practices. Thus, the Court cannot evaluate whether Reiske can otherwise exercise this particular religious right. Other than a bald statement, Reiske has provided no evidence showing why the use of the oils available in the commissary is not a reasonable accommodation of the request.” The Equal Protection claim also failed because Reiske did not identify any other inmate allegedly treated better under similar circumstances, a required element of any such claim. In fact, there was evidence that other Wiccan prisoners requested items similar to those sought by Reiske and they were also denied.
The decision in Reiske v. Bruno, No. 3:13-cv-1089 (D. Conn. 2014) is available here.