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Shawn C. Sharp v. Superintendent Johnson; Deputy

February 9, 2012


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania District Court No. 2-00-cv-02156 Magistrate Judge: The Honorable Amy Reynolds Hay

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Circuit Judge.


Argued November 8, 2011

Before: SCIRICA, SMITH, and JORDAN, Circuit Judges


Plaintiff Shawn Sharp, an inmate in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), brought this civil rights action in November 2000 claiming that two prison facilities (SCI-Pittsburgh and SCI-Greene) unlawfully denied his request to accommodate his particular religious group.*fn1 After years of motions practice, in which several of Sharp's claims were dismissed, Sharp's remaining two claims proceeded to a three-day bench trial before the Magistrate Judge.*fn2 They were: (1) a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that Defendants' policies and practices violated Sharp's right to practice his religion as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments (the "First Amendment Action"); and (2) a claim pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc (2000) (the "RLUIPA Action"). The Magistrate Judge entered judgment in favor of Defendants and issued a memorandum setting forth her findings of fact and conclusions of law. We will affirm.


Sharp is serving a life term of imprisonment following his conviction for first degree murder. He was incarcerated at SCI-Pittsburgh from September 18, 1998 to May 23, 2001. Sharp was transferred to SCI-Greene and was incarcerated there from May 23, 2001 to June 13, 2006, when he was transferred to SCI-Dallas.



SCI-Pittsburgh recognizes and accommodates several different religions and religious groups, namely Christians, Jews, and Muslims. With respect to Christianity, SCI-Pittsburgh offers Catholic, Protestant, and Jehovah's Witnesses services. As to Islam, SCI-Pittsburgh offers Nation of Islam, Moorish Science Temple, and Sunni Muslim services.

An inmate practicing a religion not covered by the aforementioned groups may request an accommodation. DC-Administrative 819 ("DC-ADM 819") sets forth the DOC's policy for requesting recognition of a religion and obtaining services for that group. The version of DC-ADM 819 that was in effect from March 2, 1998 until July 15, 2002 stated, in pertinent part, that:

Requests to engage in religious practices . . . which are not being accommodated by the [DOC], must be initiated by the inmate via an 'Inmate Religious Accommodation Request Form' . . . . The form shall be completed by the requesting inmate and submitted to the Facility Chaplaincy Program Director for review by appropriate staff.

The Inmate Religious Accommodation Request Form, also known as DC-52, stated that "[i]f more than one inmate is filing a request, each inmate must submit a form. If this is a group request, information must be submitted to the Facility Chaplaincy Program Director, who will compile information about the group request." After the inmate submits this form, the prison's chaplain director must obtain publications from the faith group regarding the goals, beliefs and practices of that group. The chaplain then circulates a recommendation form to certain prison officials, each of whom makes a written recommendation as to whether the request should be granted or denied. The chaplain then forwards the prisoner's request, the compiled religious information, and the staff recommendations to the Administrator of Religion and Family Services at the DOC central office, who ultimately determines whether to approve or deny the request.


Sharp is a member of the faith group known as Ahlus Sunnati Wal Jama'ah, whose members are frequently referred to as Sunni Muslims. There are different subsets within the broader Sunni Muslim group. Sharp identifies himself as a member of the Habashi sect.*fn3

The Islamic Chaplains testified that Muslims at the prison typically take part in Jumah and Taleem. Jumah is a group prayer service held on Fridays that every Muslim is obligated to attend if possible. Taleem is a religious study period that is generally held on a weekly basis though there is no religious obligation to attend. Defendant Tanko Ibrahiym, the Islamic Chaplain at SCI-Pittsburgh from 1998 to 2004 and a self-identified Sunni Muslim, led Jumah services and Taleem classes for Sunni Muslims at the prison. Sharp regularly attended these services and classes.

At some point, Sharp informed Imam Ibrahiym that he believed there were ideological differences between Sharp's Habashi sect and the recognized Sunni group at SCI-Pittsburgh. Sharp believed that the Habashi could not be accommodated within the Sunni Muslim community at SCI-Pittsburgh. Imam Ibrahiym disagreed with Sharp's assertion that the Habashi were not being accommodated and advised that if Sharp was a Sunni Muslim, as he claimed to be, then there was no reason why Sharp could not attend the services and programs that were offered to the Sunni Muslims at SCI-Pittsburgh.

On October 14, 1999, Sharp, on behalf of a purported group of Habashi members, submitted a typed document titled "Religious Accommodation Request for Ahlus Sunnati wal Jama'ah," requesting recognition and accommodation of the Habashi sect. In particular, Sharp sought space for separate Jumah services and Taleem classes on behalf of his purported group of 30 inmates. Although the document submitted was not the DC-52 form required by DC-ADM 819, it contained similar substantive information.

Imam Ibrahiym discussed this group request with Defendant Father William Terza, who was the Facility Chaplain Program Director and was responsible for overseeing the chaplaincy program at SCI-Pittsburgh. Father Terza informed Sharp that his request was improperly submitted because it did not include an individual request on the proper DC-52 form, as required by DC-ADM 819. Father Terza told Sharp that once he submitted the proper form, Father Terza would circulate it to the appropriate SCI-Pittsburgh staff members for their recommendation and then forward it to the DOC central office for a decision. The District Court found that Sharp never submitted the proper individual request form to Father Terza.

On November 28, 1999, a meeting was held between Defendant Mark Krysevig, who was the Deputy Superintendent at SCI-Pittsburgh, Defendant Rhoda Winstead, who was the Corrections Classification Program Manager (the "CCPM") at SCI-Pittsburgh, Imam Ibrahiym, Father Terza and several inmates, including Sharp, to discuss SCI-Pittsburgh's Ramadan services. Specifically, discussions were held to determine how Ramadan, a month-long Muslim observance, would be accommodated among the various Muslim groups and inmates who wished to participate. At this meeting, Sharp again - this time orally - raised his request for a group accommodation of his Habashi sect.

On November 30, 1999, Sharp was placed in administrative custody (i.e., the restrictive housing unit) because, according to Defendants, Sharp's efforts to organize a separate religious group were creating a threat to institutional security. In particular, the prison officials found that Sharp was a danger to others, that he was attempting to establish himself as the leader of a group of inmates, and that he threatened disruption and violence if his religious group was not recognized. Defendants Krysevig and William Stickman, who was the Deputy Superintendent for Facility Management at SCI-Pittsburgh, believed that Sharp was more interested in placing himself in a leadership position over a group of inmates than obtaining a genuine religious accommodation. Several inmates complained to Krysevig that Sharp was being disrespectful of their beliefs, and Krysevig was concerned that these other inmates might retaliate against Sharp. In sum, Sharp was placed in administrative custody for "fomenting unrest in group activity."

On December 1, 1999, Sharp filed Grievance No. PIT-0997-99 (the "Pittsburgh Grievance") questioning why no determination had been issued with respect to his group request for accommodation. On December 20, 1999, Winstead denied the Pittsburgh Grievance in writing, stating, in pertinent part:

At the meeting you mention on November 28, 1999 it was verified that all staff mentioned received a copy of your proposal [i.e., Sharp's request for an accommodation].

In accordance with DC-ADM 819-3 for religious accommodations, you were to submit the proper form requesting such an accommodation for you as an individual. Any other inmates requesting an accommodation must be filed individually. Your form should be forwarded to the chaplaincy coordinator. Your form was improperly filed.

The SCI-Pittsburgh Defendants testified that Sharp never submitted a form requesting religious accommodations for himself as an individual. Sharp claims that he and other Habashi members submitted handwritten, individual requests for accommodation to Imam Ibrahiym. Imam Ibrahiym's trial testimony on this issue was, at best, unclear. Imam Ibrahiym testified that he never received a DC-52 form from Sharp or any other of the inmates that practice Habashi. Later, Imam Ibrahiym testified that he received written requests for accommodation from Sharp, though the nature of these purported requests was unclear.*fn4

Sharp appealed the denial of the Pittsburgh Grievance to Defendant Philip Johnson, who was Superintendent of SCI-Pittsburgh. On January 5, 2000, Johnson dismissed Sharp's appeal as untimely.

Sharp further claims that, while he was in administrative custody, Defendants proposed that he sign a behavioral modification contract that included a condition that he agree not to practice his religion in exchange for release into the general population. SCI-Pittsburgh had a Program Review Committee ("PRC") that would periodically meet with inmates confined to administrative custody and review their restricted status. Defendants Krysevig and Joel Dickson, who was the Deputy Superintendent at SCI- Pittsburgh, were on Sharp's PRC.*fn5 Because the PRC had "serious reservations" about releasing Sharp into the general population absent modification of his behavior, the PRC offered him the opportunity to agree to a behavioral modification contract. Behavioral modification contracts were informal agreements between the institution and the inmate setting the terms of the inmate's release from administrative custody. If the inmate fails to comply with the terms of the contract, he can be returned to administrative custody. The PRC proposed a behavioral modification contract to Sharp, the general terms of which were to include promises by Sharp to cease fomenting unrest and to refrain from showing disrespect for the religious beliefs and practices of others, in exchange for release from ...

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