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Settlement reached in religious freedom, solitary confinement suit

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The ACLU of Virginia announced today that a settlement agreement has been reached in Burke v. Clarke, a federal lawsuit on behalf of Randy Burke, a practicing Rastafarian who was put in solitary confinement for over five years for refusing to cut his hair, even though it violated a tenet of his religion.

During his time in solitary confinement, Burke was also denied opportunities to practice his religion, including receiving religious services, religious items, and holiday meals.

Burke was originally incarcerated in the Virgin Islands and was transferred to Red Onion State Prison in 2013 and later to Wallens Ridge State Prison in 2014, where he was held in the Violators Housing Unit, confined to a solitary cell for 21 hours a day, until the unit closed in 2019.

The settlement agreement includes the termination of VDOC’s contract with the Virgin Islands to house Burke, making him eligible for transfer back to the Virgin Islands to be near his loved ones within 90 days. The agreement also includes a monetary settlement. Additionally, VDOC amended its grooming policy to no longer prohibit locked hair and has closed its Violators Housing Unit at Wallens Ridge.

“Mr. Burke has a clearly established the constitutional right to practice his religion while incarcerated, and we’re glad he has some relief from the abuse he has experienced at the hands of VDOC,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “He filed grievance after grievance, and like so many others in Virginia prisons, his pleas went unanswered. Not only that, but he was also severely punished for the simple expression of his faith. He endured years of torture for his religious beliefs – an unacceptable violation of his human rights. We wish him well as he is rightfully returned home to the Virgin Islands.”

“An unconstitutional and discriminatory policy caused Mr. Burke to spend five years in solitary confinement for the offense of practicing his chosen religion. More than two and a half years after VDOC abandoned that discriminatory policy, Mr. Burke is finally receiving some relief for the injustice he suffered,” said Joshua Erlich of The Erlich Law Office. “We are happy Mr. Burke is returning home and we will continue to push the VDOC to abandon harmful and illegal policies to prevent the next injustice.”

Burke filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2016 after exhausting the prison’s grievance system with no relief. After initially losing his case in the trial court, Burke obtained representation from the Appellate Clinic at Washington University School of Law and successfully urged the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the trial court’s decision.

The ACLU of Virginia, partnering with The Erlich Law Office, began representing Burke in 2021.

The ACLU of Virginia has filed a class-action lawsuit against VDOC (Thorpe, et al. v. Virginia Department of Corrections, et al.) seeking an end to its use of solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prison. Legislation to end solitary confinement in all Virginia prisons and to create independent oversight over VDOC will also be considered in the upcoming General Assembly session.

augusta free press
augusta free press