Inmates claim ban on watching eclipse outside violates their religion

Inmates sue to watch the eclipse

Six men including one from the Capital Region sue to be allowed to watch the eclipse.

A group of inmates say their rights to celebrate their religion are being violated because they are not being allowed outside to watch Monday’s solar eclipse. They are now suing the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

The eclipse is scheduled to occur between the hours of 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. with some parts of the region experiencing a total solar eclipse. However, DOCCS is operating on a holiday schedule that day and ordered inmates to remain inside in their housing units or assigned work location. The usual time for outdoor recreation is from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., according to the lawsuit.

The inmates are housed at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Sullivan County.

Lead plaintiff Jeremy Zielinski is an atheist, but the attorneys from the New York City-based Alston & Bird firm said he should be allowed to watch the celestial event outside because “his sincerely held religious beliefs include the practice of gathering to celebrate science and reason. He sincerely believes that observing the solar eclipse is critical to practicing his faith.”

Zielinski, 40, has a connection to the Capital Region. He was sentenced in Albany County Court in 2016 to 14 ½ years in prison on a first-degree rape.

Two other plaintiffs, Travis Hudson and David Haigh, are Christian and quote Bible passages that state that on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court of Northern New York, states that Haigh believes that “it is key to his faith to observe the solar eclipse and reflect on what he believes is the same phenomenon experienced by Jesus Christ before he died.” Hudson shares the same view.

Muslim plaintiff Jean Marc Desmarat cites passages from the one of the holiest books of Islam, the Hadith, that describes what many believe to be an eclipse happening as Muhammad’s son died. He would like to perform a special prayer in view of the eclipse.

Two other inmates, Bruce Moses and Oscar Nunez, are followers of the Santeria religion.

Moses believes that “God is the sun and morning, and the being who wakes everyone every morning. He also believes humans should seek to understand God’s creation of life.”

Nunez’s beliefs include “praying and chanting to the moon and sun for blessings while they meet at the time of the solar eclipse.”

The inmates are seeking that the court declare that DOCCS is violating their constitutional rights and order that they be allowed to view the eclipse outside with glasses provided by the department. 

DOCCS does not comment on pending litigation. However, it said in a statement that the department “takes all requests for religious accommodations under consideration. Religious requests related to viewing the eclipse are currently under review.”

The statement reiterated that they made the changes to ensure the safety of the state’s incarcerated population. It is also suspending visitation that day for correctional facilities in the affected area given the surge in visitors expected to the region.

The Times Union was first to report the story.