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Harris v. Holmes

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 23, 2019

GARY HARRIS, Plaintiff,
CHRISTOPHER HOLMES, et al., Defendants.

          Gary Harris, No. 283029 South Woods State Prison 215 Burlington Road South Bridgeton, N.J. 08302 Plaintiff pro se

          Gregory R. Bueno, Esq. Suzanne Marie Davies, Esq. Office of the Attorney General 25 Market Street Trenton, N.J. 08625 Counsel for Moving Defendants


          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff, Gary Harris, appearing pro se, [1] is in the custody of the New Jersey Department of Corrections (“NJDOC”) and currently incarcerated at South Woods State Prison (“SWSP”) in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Plaintiff claims that Defendants have violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution by not providing him with hot meals and adequate food during Ramadan, failing to accommodate sufficient prayer time and provide prayer oil, preventing him from wearing religious attire, and harassing him during 2012 and 2013.[2]

         Presently before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Marcus Hicks, Christopher Holmes, Gary Lanigan, Bettie Norris and Maggie Silva (the “Moving Defendants”), [3] which is ripe for adjudication.[4] ECF No. 91. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the Motion.

         I. Factual Background

         Plaintiff Gary Harris commenced this action by submitting a Complaint to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. ECF No. 1. Plaintiff asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for (1) violation of the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause; and (2) denial of Equal Protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment against Hicks, Holmes, Lanigan, Norris and Silva as well as defendants Mark Farsi, Greg Lanoza, Mack Selby, Mark Ramano, John Marcucci, Dr. Yusef, Reverend Moyer, Kevin Bolden, Easely, and John Does 1-10.[5] Id., ¶¶ 3-17, 33-36. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff sues the defendants in both their official and individual capacities.[6] Id. at 1. Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and reasonable costs.[7]Id., ¶ 40.

         Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants violated his Constitutional rights with respect to his adherence to the Islamic faith. Plaintiff categorizes the Defendants' alleged wrongdoing pursuant to his religious beliefs as the (1) failure to provide hot meals and adequate food; (2) failure to accommodate sufficient prayer time and prayer oil; and (3) failure to permit donning of kufi caps during prison recreation. Id., ¶¶ 18-31. Plaintiff alleges that these violations occurred in 2012 and 2013.

         At all times relevant to this action, Plaintiff has been incarcerated at SWSP in Bridgeton, New Jersey, a correctional facility owned and operated by NJDOC. ECF No. 91-2, ¶ 13. Plaintiff is an adherent of the Islamic faith and has considered himself Muslim throughout his incarceration. Id., ¶ 14. Plaintiff identifies as a follower of Sunni Islam. Id., ¶ 15.

         A. Religious Dietary Restrictions

         Plaintiff asserts his belief that according to the Islamic faith, he must follow certain dietary restrictions year round. Id., ¶ 16. These include complete restrictions on eating pork, drinking alcohol, and use of drugs. Id., ¶ 16. In addition to general dietary restrictions described above, Plaintiff also stated there are specific dietary restrictions associated with the holy month of Ramadan. Id., ¶ 17. Specifically, Plaintiff testified that he is required to fast during Ramadan. Id. Plaintiff describes the fasting practices during Ramadan as follows: Once the “Fajr prayer” (dawn) prayer “comes in, ” Plaintiff is not to consume any foods or liquids until night time. In essence, Plaintiff must fast completely from one hour before sunrise until sunset. Id., ¶¶ 18-19.

         Plaintiff explains that some Muslims are excused from the Ramadan fast, like those who are on medications, are too old, have a disability, or otherwise would endure a hardship if they had to fast. ECF No. 91-4, Dep. at 33. Plaintiff identifies no other dietary requirements as part of his religion or for the practice of Ramadan. Plaintiff does not claim that having the same caloric intake during fasting days as during non-fasting days is required or suggested by, or indeed in any way related to, the Islamic faith.[8] ECF No. 91-2, ¶ 57.

         Before Ramadan in 2012, Defendant Hicks, who at the time served as the Director of the NJDOC's Office of Community Programs and Outreach Services, issued a memorandum to all the prisons' administrators regarding preparation for Ramadan. In this memo, he instructed the facilities that:

a. Inmates participating in Ramadan should be provided the standard meal package for breakfast and dinner as provided to the general inmate population and should be diversified as much as possible.
b. Ritualistic elements should be provided equally for all approved religious services throughout the NJDOC. Defendant Hicks also instructed the facilities that the purchasing of dates “is the appropriate and required food provision for those observing Ramadan.”
c. Movement schedules and meal schedules are to be made available and distributed to “all appropriate custody and civilian staff that are involved in the preparation and oversight of Ramadan observance in order to avoid any possible delays or discrepancies in services.”

Id., ¶ 22. On July 11, 2012, non-moving Defendant SWSP Food Service Supervisor Mark Ramano issued an inter-office memorandum to all food service staff regarding food preparation during Ramadan. Id., ¶ 24. This memo directed food service staff to deliver breakfast 20 to 30 minutes before meal time. Id. It also directed staff to deliver the dinner meals at approximately No. 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Id., ¶¶ 23-24. Ramano ordered that at service time, the hot portions of meals will be placed in aluminum trays, while the cold portions will be placed in a hinged tray. Id., ¶ 25. The memo also addressed food temperature control. Specifically, Ramano ordered that the aluminum trays be placed on steam tables with approximately a half inch of water and the control dial to be set no higher than “3”. Id., ¶ 26. The cold portions of the meal (hinged trays) were ordered to be placed in the milk dispensers until distribution time. Id., ¶ 27.

         This memo also confirmed that during preparation for Ramadan, a meeting was held between Dr. Yusef (chaplain), Food Services and the SWSP Administration. Id. At that meeting, it was decided that even though it was not required, Food Services would provide the additional foods for the express purpose of making up the calories lost without being served lunch (which cannot be served to Muslim inmates due to their fasting). Id., ¶ 29.

         Plaintiff testified that from approximately July 20 to August 19, 2012, and July 11 to August 9, 2013 (Ramadan in 2012 and 2013, respectively), Food Services gave him as part of his dinner “two slices of bread” and did not give him enough food to make up for the calories lost from not being able to eat lunch (a loss he attributes to the Ramadan fast) as part of his dinner. Id., ¶ 20. During Ramadan in 2012 and 2013, however, Plaintiff and the Muslim population received the standard breakfast and dinner packages, which included a rotating menu for both breakfast and dinner. Id., ¶ 30.

         In addition to being afforded the standard breakfast and dinner menus, the Muslim population at SWSP, including Plaintiff, was given two slices of bread, two servings of peanut butter, two servings of jelly, and was served cold cereal in place of hot cereal. Id., ¶ 31. Plaintiff expressed his personal distaste for the aforesaid combination of food provided. Id., ¶ 21. Plaintiff states that he would have liked a “double tray” at dinner. ECF No. 91-4, Dep. at 38. None of the named Defendants played any role in preparing Plaintiff's food at any time period relevant to the litigation. ECF No. 91-2, ¶ 40.

         During Ramadan in 2012 and 2013, Plaintiff received his breakfast meals at about 3:00 a.m., whereas the general population inmates would receive their breakfast meals around 5:00 a.m. Id., ¶ 35. Plaintiff would receive hot water in the morning during Ramadan.[9] Id., ¶ 36. During Ramadan, as during the rest of the year, however, Plaintiff would buy additional food from the commissary. ECF No. 91-4, Dep. at 41. Plaintiff encountered difficulty preparing the food he purchased at the commissary, which sometimes requires hot water, because hot water was not provided during Ramadan in 2012 and 2013 in the evening. Id. at 42-43. Plaintiff states that since then, hot water has been provided. Id. at 44.

         Plaintiff testified that his body went through changes during the month of Ramadan due to dietary restrictions. ECF No. 91-2, ¶ 38. Plaintiff did not seek any medical assistance for these symptoms. Id., ¶ 39.

         In response to questioning about how, in his view, his exercise of his Islamic beliefs was frustrated by the kinds of meals provided or in what instances hot water was provided, Plaintiff testified that he felt disrespected that he was not being given access to hot water. Id., ¶ 41.

         B. Access to Prayer Time, Prayer Oil, and Kufis

         Plaintiff testified that both during Ramadan and non-Ramadan days, there have been instances where non-defendant corrections officers in “Facility 3” have told him that he is not allowed to pray in the recreation yard. Id., ¶ 43. Plaintiff states that since October 2015, he has been housed in “Facility 1, ” where he has not had any issue with getting sufficient prayer time. Id., ¶ 42.

         Plaintiff admits that Defendants Silva and Norris are completely uninvolved in Plaintiff's claims regarding the ability to pray, id., ¶ 44, and that none of the Defendants directed corrections officers to interfere with Plaintiff's prayers. Id., ¶ 46.

         Plaintiff testified that he wrote to Defendants Holmes and Lanigan about “the conditions . . . that were happening at the Jumuah [prayer] services and about praying in the yard.” Id., ¶ 45. Plaintiff states that he directed correspondence to Defendants Holmes and Lanigan about “Muslims congregating . . . Muslims being able to pray in the yard . . . Muslims not being able to wear kufis [religious headwear] . . . .” He states that after submitting this correspondence, he is now allowed to wear kufis. Id., ΒΆ 47. According to Plaintiff, ...

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