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Closing Argument

What an Eclipse Lockdown Reveals about Dignity in Prisons and Jails

Recent lawsuits regarding the rights of incarcerated people and guards include gender, religious discrimination, and the right to watch the eclipse

A red brick correctional facility behind a barbed wire fence.
The Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County, N.Y. Six men incarcerated at the state prison sued the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for the right to view the solar eclipse on April 8, citing the religious significance of the celestial event.

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On Monday afternoon, tens of millions of people around the country will stop whatever they’re doing to go outside and look to the skies (hopefully while wearing protective eyewear) to get a glimpse of the 2024 solar eclipse.

Few of the skygazers will have had to sue for the right. That’s the situation six men incarcerated at the state prison in Woodbourne, New York, found themselves in after state prison officials announced that facilities in the path of the eclipse would be on lockdown Monday.

The lawsuit argued that the rare celestial event holds religious significance, and that being prevented from viewing it constituted a violation of their religious freedom. After a federal judge initially tossed their claims, late Thursday attorneys for the men announced a settlement that would give them — though not the rest of the prison — outdoor access.

While most are not astronomical in nature, prisons and jails are frequently on the receiving end of lawsuits arguing that they violate people’s rights in ways that are tied to religious, racial, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This dynamic is likely unsurprising, given the near-total control that detention facilities exert over the people who enter their doors.

This week, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division sued the Utah correctional department for discriminating against a transgender woman by failing to provide gender-affirming health care to treat her gender dysphoria. The condition occurs when the lack of alignment between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity causes severe emotional distress. Not all transgender people have gender dysphoria, but the condition is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is the law the DoJ has accused Utah of violating. The suit comes on the heels of a federal investigation into the case that concluded last month. The state has denied it discriminated against the woman and said it was “disappointed” by the investigators’ approach.

By contrast, in nearby Colorado, state officials recently finalized a consent decree in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of transgender women incarcerated in the state. The suit argued that transgender prisoners were subject to predatory sexual violence and unsafe housing conditions. Recent accounts of transgender people incarcerated in New York and Texas describe similar issues. As part of the Colorado agreement, the department will create special housing units for transgender women at two of the state's facilities. Placement at the units will be voluntary.

Discrimination suits also show up in local jails. In October, the family of Anthony Talotta filed a lawsuit alleging that a Pennsylvania jail provided substandard medical care after the 57-year-old died of an infection in his leg while incarcerated there. The suit alleged that Talotta’s autism and intellectual disabilities left him unable to communicate his medical needs or to care for himself. Like the suit filed in Utah, it relied on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which we discussed in a recent edition of this newsletter about interactions between neurodivergent people and the police.

People from historically marginalized groups aren’t the only ones who have attempted to change detention policies with discrimination lawsuits. Last year, a white separatist group known as “Christian Identity” was granted religious status in Michigan prisons by a federal judge, giving members the right to hold services. In Minnesota, the leader of a Christian reentry program called “The Quest for Authentic Manhood” is suing the state corrections department for terminating the course. The corrections department has argued that the class promoted dangerous gender stereotypes and “directly conflicted” with the department's “diversity, equity, and inclusivity values,” reported the Star-Tribune.

Claims of discrimination in prisons and jails aren’t limited to the people incarcerated in them, as correctional policies often bump up against the identities of corrections officers, too. The DoJ backed a suit by Sikh prison guards in California last week, arguing that the corrections department’s ban on staff growing facial hair amounts to religious discrimination. The state has said the rule is to ensure that respirator masks will fit guards snugly when they are at risk from contagious diseases.

In Virginia, three female corrections officers are suing the prison system, arguing that the policy of using body scanners to detect contraband is discriminatory because the scans routinely flag menstrual and birth control products, subjecting those employees to demeaning strip searches. The state has responded that the search policy is gender-neutral because it allows “consensual strip searches of any employee, regardless of gender,” the Virginia Mercury reported. Staff who decline the searches can be denied entry, lose work, and can be terminated.

In other cases, it’s coworkers, rather than policy, who trigger discrimination claims. In Georgia last Thursday, a federal judge ruled that a transgender man may continue a hostile work environment lawsuit against the corrections department for harassment by co-workers and superiors.

And earlier this year, corrections officer Colenzo Grant in Maryland filed a lawsuit alleging that White guards created a “race-based gang” that protects its members from accountability for misconduct while hurling racist insults at non-White colleagues.

Grant, who is Black and an immigrant from Sierra Leone, told The Washington Post, “I like the work, but honestly it’s not inmates that make it bad,” he said. “It’s fellow officers.”

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.