Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting Lawsuit
by Fred Dettmer
At Summer Sessions 2018, Friends approved a minute (2018-07-46) to support legal action by members of the Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting against the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) in pursuit of their religious rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting is under the care of Poughkeepsie Monthly Meeting and is part of Nine Partners Quarterly Meeting. DOCCS took two actions that eliminated important Friends programs at Green Haven Correctional Facility.
For approximately 35 years, Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting hosted in Green Haven Correctional Facility one or two gatherings a year of Friends in Nine Partners Quarter. Comparable to Quarterly Meetings, these gatherings generally took place on Saturdays from around 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and included worship, program, business, food, and fellowship. In 2015, DOCCS terminated these gatherings.
For approximately 30 years, participants in Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting met three times a week: once for worship; once for a study group; and once for meeting for worship with a concern for business. In July 2018, DOCCS terminated the meetings for worship with a concern for business on the supposed basis that it “does not appear to be a study group or a worship service and therefore does not appear necessary.”
After lengthy, but unsuccessful, efforts to work with DOCCS to see these programs reinstated, Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting, Poughkeepsie Monthly Meeting, Bulls Head-Oswego Monthly Meeting, Nine Partners Quarterly Meeting, New York Yearly Meeting and ten individual Friends filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (White Plains branch) on September 18, 2018 against DOCCS and its responsible officials. The lawsuit asks the Court to order DOCCS to reinstate Quarterly Meetings and meetings for worship with a concern for business at Green Haven CF on the same terms as previously existed. The legal claims are based principally on Friends’ rights to practice our faith free from government interference under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed to provide broad protection to the religious freedom of the incarcerated.
On March 29, 2019, we filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which seeks to have the Quarterly Meetings and meetings for worship with a concern for business reinstated immediately by the Court, before the issues raised by the lawsuit have even been fully decided. The Judge can issue a preliminary injunction if he finds that we are likely to prevail on the merits in the case and will suffer “irreparable harm” if the programs are not reinstated immediately. “Irreparable harm” means injury that cannot be adequately compensated in money. Deprivation of religious liberty is typically considered to be “irreparable harm.” At the time of this report, we are waiting to hear from the Court on the motion for a preliminary injunction.
Prison ministry has been a central part of the practice of the Religious Society of Friends nearly since our founding. (See page 52 in the 2018 edition of Faith and Practice.) Prison ministry also is exhausting work. Some burn-out is nearly inevitable. While this lawsuit may enable incarcerated and free Friends involved with Green Haven Prison Preparative Meeting to resume important Friends’ programs, it cannot assure the future success of Quaker worship in Green Haven Correctional Facility. Only the sustained commitment of Friends to our historical ministry can do that. We must find new ways to assist and support these Friends, to reinvigorate our prison ministry. Otherwise, DOCCS may grind us down; and Quakers are not given to being deterred by the powers that be.