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Hunter v. Corrections Corporation of America

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Dublin Division

December 5, 2017




         On August 15, 2017, the Court held a bench trial concerning Plaintiff's claims that Defendants' operation of a religious program at Wheeler Correctional Facility (“WCF”) violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, U.S. Const. Amend. I, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. In accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a)(1), the Court makes its findings of fact and conclusions of law.


         Plaintiff Curtis Hunter is a prisoner in custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections. From April 15, 2014 through November 7, 2014, Plaintiff was assigned to Unit 9N of WCF, a private prison operated by Defendant Corrections Corporation of America (“CCA”). During this time period, Defendant Damon Hininger was President of CCA, Defendant Jason Medlin was warden of WCF, Defendant Ron Day was chaplain of WCF, and Defendant Jay Phillips was a facilitator assigned to WCF's Life Principles Program (“the Program”), which was housed in Unit 9N.

         Upon arrival at WCF, Plaintiff was initially assigned to a top bunk because his bottom bunk profile expired before his transfer. While being processed through qualifications, Plaintiff expressed his difficulty in finding a bottom bunk. A WCF employee told Plaintiff there was a bottom bunk in Unit 9N, where the Program was housed, and he could stay there until renewal of his bottom bunk profile. The employee told him the majority of the Program utilized biblical and Christian materials, but also included Islam, Plaintiff's religion. Plaintiff decided to join the Program because (1) it offered his religion; (2) he had the opportunity to learn about other religions; and (3) a bottom bunk was available.

         The Program in full lasted nine months, and consisted of three daily sessions. The first daily session involved memorization of Romans 1 and 2, viewing gospel videos by Bill Gaither, and reviewing Psalms and Proverbs with open discussion. During the second daily session, guest speakers lectured on the Bible. The third session involved Christian devotions and testimonies. On Fridays, the first session involved Christian worship and praise songs rather than the usual gospel videos and scripture memorization. Books utilized in the Program included “Commands of Christ” and “Power to True Success.” The Program also involved anger resolution seminar videos. Program materials were biblical or Christian in nature.

         Participation in the Program was voluntary, and an inmate could leave the Program at any time. While participation was voluntary, once enrolled in the Program, group sessions were mandatory because it was an inmate's OMS assignment, or job assignment, within WCF. Failure to attend a group session would result in prison officials issuing a disciplinary report (“DR”). None of the group sessions interfered with Plaintiff's ability to regularly read the Quran, pray, or attend WCF's Jumu'ah service for Muslims on Friday afternoons.

         The Program was staffed primarily by volunteers. However, Defendant Phillips was on staff at WCF and specifically assigned to oversee Unit 9N, which housed the Program. Defendant Phillips regularly visited the Program during Plaintiff's time, and was responsible for making sure every participant attended the first group session. Plaintiff testified Chaplain Day never visited the Program, and all witnesses testified Defendant Hinninger and Defendant Medlin never visited the Program. All funds for the Program came from the inmate benefit fund, which is derived from commissary sales and inmate telephone fees.

         Plaintiff never filed a grievance about the Program or received a DR during his seven months in the Program. Only after Plaintiff left the Program did he file a grievance and this lawsuit. Plaintiff was the first inmate to complain about the Program. In response to Plaintiff's complaints, WCF discontinued the Program and replaced it with the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) life skills program.


         A. The Program Violated the Establishment Clause Because Its Primary Effect Was Inculcation and Indoctrination of Christian Beliefs.

         1. The Establishment Clause Standard

         The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” U.S. Const. Amend. I. This restriction applies to states, as well as state-created entities and their employees, through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1284 (11th Cir. 2004). The Establishment Clause erects a barrier between government and religious entities “‘depending on all the circumstances of a particular relationship.'” Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 678-79 (1984), (quoting Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971)); see McCreary Cty. v. Am. Civ. Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844, 867 (2005) (“[U]nder the Establishment Clause detail is key.”). For those “who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment the ‘establishment' of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.” Walz v. Tax Comm'n, 397 U.S. 664, 668 (1970).

         The Establishment Clause applies only to state actors, which includes state and federal governments as well as a limited class of private entities. “Where a function which is traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state . . . is performed by a private entity, state action is present.” Ancata v. Prison Health Servs., Inc., 769 F.2d 700, 703 (11th Cir. 1985) (citations omitted). For example, private medical providers treating state inmates are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate indifference to medical needs because their treatment constitutes state action. See id.; Buckner v. Toro, 116 F.3d 450, 452 (11th Cir. 1997) (“When a private entity . . . contracts with a county to provide medical services to inmates, it performs a function traditionally within the exclusive prerogative of the state.”). Section 1983 also applies to the “‘acts and decisions of individual government actors.'” Brunskill v. Boyd, 141 F. App'x 771, 775 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1284 (11th Cir. 2004)). This Court previously found, despite the lack of direct government funding, Defendants engaged in state action in implementing the Program. (Doc. no. 142-1, pp. 4-6.) The Court hereby reaffirms this finding.

         The Supreme Court has not considered the Establishment Clause within the context of a prison. However, in an unpublished case, the Eleventh Circuit applied the Lemon-Agostini test to a faith-based dormitory program inside a prison. Smith v. Governor for Alabama, 562 F. App'x 806, 816 (11th Cir. 2014). The Eleventh Circuit has consistently applied the Lemon test outside of cases involving legislative prayer. Compare King v. Richmond Cty., Ga., 331 F.3d 1271, 1276 (11th Cir. 2003) (applying Lemon test to court seal containing ten commandments) and Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1284 (applying Lemon test to teacher's moment of silence) with Pelphrey v. Cobb Cty., Ga., 547 F.3d 1263, 1276 (11th Cir. 2008) (applying Marsh to prayer by county ...

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