Court Rules that Prison Policy Is Race Discrimination

February 9, 2001

Source: The Washington Post

On February 9, 2001, The Washington Post reported that "on Wednesday, a federal appeals court struck down" a policy at the Greensville Correctional Center that prevented Virginia prisoner Gary David Morrison Jr. from practicing his religion. Morrison, a convicted murderer, "asked his jailers for access to sacred herbs, medicine bags and feathers -- items used in Native American religious ceremonies." Prison officials refused "because the items are normally banned as personal property...Morrison, 31, didn't qualify for a Native American religious exemption, they said, because he's white." The court called the policy race discrimination. "Although prison officials may have legitimate security concerns about the items, they can't allow some inmates access to them and not others simply based on their ethnicity, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled. Virginia officials 'have failed to demonstrate that the requested spiritual items are any less dangerous in the hands of a Native American inmate, as opposed to a non-Native American inmate who sincerely wishes to practice Native American spirituality,' Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel...The warden received exemption requests from Morrison and other members of a prison group called Heritage Examined Around Redman Traditions, which was made up of inmates who wanted to practice rituals similar to some tribal ceremonies...Prison officials asked the group to provide proof of tribal membership, but most of the members were not Native American." A judge on the appeals court said, however, that "'we cannot endorse the proposition that an inmate's sincerity of religious beliefs...can be defined solely by his race or heritage.'...The appeals court did not order the prison to give Morrison the items. Rather, the judges told the state to deal with the security concerns on a racially neutral basis."