January 2006 - A civil liberties group wants ACI inmate Wesley Spratt to be allowed to preach at Christian services inside the prison. Spurred by what Spratt describes as a "calling" from God, he began preaching seven years ago at services in the prison chapel and cafeteria while under the supervision of a prison chaplain. But a new warden banned Spratt from preaching in 2003, saying that placing inmates in a position of authority -- like preaching -- could cause unrest.
Spratt filed a federal lawsuit two years ago alleging that jail officials were violating a federal religious liberties law adopted in 2000. U.S. District Magistrate Judge Jacob Hagopian recently decided against Spratt, ruling that maintaining a safe prison is a valid reason to violate Spratt's religious liberty. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an appeal on Spratt's behalf Tuesday.
"There's been no evidence presented to the court that
(Spratt's preaching) created any problem. It was purely a
speculative concern about safety," said Steven Brown, executive
director of the ACLU's Rhode Island branch. Although prison
officials never presented evidence that Spratt's preaching had
caused any trouble, Hagopian said the warden can act
But Brown argues the prison is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which grants certain religious rights to prisoners and requires that the government prove they have a "compelling interest" before infringing on a person's religious practice. The same law also requires the government to first use the least coercive restrictions when protecting a "compelling interest," Brown said.
Boston - A federal appeals court has struck down an attempt by Rhode Island correction officials to bar Wesley R. Spratt, a convicted murderer, lay minister and maximum-security inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions, from preaching in prison.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an earlier ruling by District Judge William E. Smith that allowed ACI officials to stop Spratt from delivering sermons to fellow inmates. The ruling made public yesterday sends the matter back to the District Court for a hearing on the merits of the case. Spratt began attending Christian worship services and underwent a religious awakening in prison, after his conviction for fatally shooting a Providence parking lot attendant in a 1995 robbery.
For seven years, Spratt preached to fellow inmates on the belief that he was called by God to do so. That ended in 2003 when ACI officials stopped him, citing "security concerns." Spratt filed suit against state corrections officials and A.T. Wall, Rhode Island's corrections commissioner. Under federal law, prisons cannot impose a "substantial burden" on the religious practices of an inmate. The three-judge panel was comprised of Judge Juan P. Torruella, Judge Sandra L. Lynch and Judge Kermit V. Lipez. Judge Torruella wrote the opinion.
The state's evidence that Spratt was a security threat was thin, the opinion stated.
"Spratt's seven-year track record as a preacher, which is apparently unblemished by any hint of unsavory activity, at the very least casts doubt on the strength of the link between his activities and institutional security." The state Department of Corrections asserted that Spratt's preaching is "dangerous to institutional security under any circumstances." But the appeals panel stated that "it is not clear" how ACI officials reached that conclusion."
Spratt was aided in his appeal by the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was represented by Lynette Labinger, a Providence lawyer and ACLU volunteer counsel. State corrections officials were represented by Patricia A. Coyne-Faque, chief legal counsel for the state corrections department.