This is a guest post contributed by Joseph N. Schneiderman.*

PrisonOn October 5, 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts heard argument in Trapp v. Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, SJC-11863. At issue is whether RLUIPA (and the Massachusetts Constitution) recognize Native American inmates’ rights to access sweat lodges—or a sacred location for spiritual purification and reconciliation and prayer.

Randall Trapp is an inmate at Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk (MCI-Norfolk) serving a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for first degree murder. See Comm. v. Trapp, 396 Mass. 202 (1985), S.C., 423 Mass. 356 (1996). In 1995, Trapp first sued Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) over violations of his religious freedom. Subsequently, in February 2003, Trapp entered into a settlement with the DOC. In relevant part, the DOC agreed to provide sweat lodges at MCI-Norfolk and the North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner (medium security facilities) as well as at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center (SBCC) in Shirley—a maximum security facility sometimes known as a “supermax” facility (also where Aaron Hernandez is incarcerated).

Sweat lodges are small, enclosed dome-like structures consisting of sixteen saplings and a covered dome with tarps and blankets. The lodges also contain pits at their center where rocks are heated with wood fires during ceremonies.  One individual is designated as a fire tender and is responsible for starting and maintaining the fire. The lodge represents the mother’s womb and provides participants the opportunity to “sweat out” any impurities, communicate with their ancestral spirits, and offer prayer. Kinnick-kinnick (a form of Tobacco) is uniquely important to this ceremony as a vehicle for communication with ancestral spirits.

The DOC currently permits Native American inmates access to ceremonial pipes, cedar, sage, certain forms of kinnick-kinnick, smudge bowls, and other Native American cultural items. However, the continual presence of Native American volunteers to tend the sweat lodge fire has been difficult to maintain. In September 2010, Trapp revived his lawsuit asserting that the DOC had breached the settlement, denied him access to authentic kinnick-kinnick and authentic regalia during sweat lodge ceremonies, and that MCI-Norfolk and SBCC had closed their sweat lodges. Trapp joined fellow MCI-Norfolk inmate Robert Ferreira (who is now incarcerated at SBCC) asserting state and federal constitutional violations as well as a claim under RLUIPA that the DOC’s actions have substantially burdened his religious exercise.

The case survived motions to dismiss and summary judgment and eventually proceeded to a full bench trial in July 2012 in the Worcester Superior Court. A judge there issued a declaratory judgment that the DOC had violated the settlement, RLUIPA and the Massachusetts Constitution by closing the sweat lodge at SBCC but not by closing the sweat lodge at MCI Norfolk because of a lack of an available qualified volunteer. The DOC appealed, and the Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case to itself from the Appeals Court on its own motion.

The crux of the dispute under RLUIPA is whether the failure to provide sweat lodges imposes a substantial burden on Mr. Trapp’s religious exercise, and if so, whether the DOC has a compelling government interest to justify its actions. Initially, the DOC and Trapp agree on the definition of “substantial burden” as “substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and violate his beliefs.”

The DOC contends that because of SBCC’s construction, there is no way to adequately ventilate the sweat lodge and asserts that smoke has entered the prison and caused respiratory distress for inmates and staff alike. SBCC is a fairly new prison (built in 2000) and employs a closed ventilation system with windows that are permanently closed.  The DOC emphasized a study performed by an environmental analyst about ventilation and the public health threat posed by the sweat lodge.  The DOC further contends that it has a compelling interest in maintaining the health of inmates, noting that the Supreme Court has held that exposure to second-hand smoke poses a potential Eighth Amendment violation. The DOC also notes that sister courts have held that prisons may ban tobacco smoking, pipe sharing, and smudging.  Indeed, federal courts in Massachusetts have held that the risk of smoke exposure through SBCC’s ventilation system does not violate RLUIPA.  Nor does denial of a sweat lodge at the Massachusetts Treatment Center at Bridgewater.

Trapp contends that the trial court correctly rejected assertions of respiratory distress as unsubstantiated hearsay and lacking an adequate expert foundation. Trapp further contends that complete closure of the sweat lodge is not the least restrictive means to accomplish the DOC’s ends of protecting inmate health and safety and that the DOC has not explored any alternative means to ventilate the sweat lodge at SBCC. Lastly, Trapp attempts to distinguish the federal decisions finding that preventing smoke exposure does not violate RLUIPA on the ground that those decisions involved pro se litigants.

Per the Court’s solicitation, several amici have supported Trapp’s position. One notes that a prison in Arizona was able to facilitate construction of a sweat lodge-and two federal appellate courts have held that total closures does not satisfy RLUIPA’s least restrictive means requirement. Huy (pronounced Hoyt), a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the needs of incarcerated Native Americans, notes also that Native Americans have the highest per capita incarceration rate. Huy emphasizes that sweat lodges are fundamental to the continued spiritual well-being of Native American inmates that cannot be replaced by prayer alone. Huy further notes that Colorado, New Mexico, and Oregon have successfully established sweat lodges-and spurred rehabilitation of Native American Inmates. Finally, Prisoner’s Legal Services echoes Huy and asserts that prison administrators are not entitled to deference on health issues rather than security issues. Because of this, they allege, the DOC failed to establish a compelling interest by competent evidence.

As one of the leading State High Courts in the country, the SJC’s decision on this front may have resonance for years to come not just for inmates in the Commonwealth, but also throughout the nation.

The Supreme Judicial Court inspired Joseph N. Schneiderman to be a lawyer in the first place. Joe is building an appellate practice “on circuit” in Connecticut and Massachusetts alike. Joe gratefully thanks the authors of RLUIPA Defense for this opportunity to blog!

*This is a guest commentary from Joseph N. Schneiderman who is not affiliated with Robinson+Cole, and is not responsible for the content of this post.

Original Photography by miss_millions (Some Rights Reserved)