Prison outside

By Taylor Anderson

On July 1, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion regarding the civil case Incumaa v. Stirling. The appellant, prisoner Lumumba Kenyatta Incumaa (“Incumaa”), appealed the district court’s decision granting appellee South Carolina Department of Corrections’ (the “Department”) motion for summary judgment on the ground that the Department’s policy did not violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and that the Department did not violate Incumaa’s right to procedural due process. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision as to the RLUIPA claim holding that the claim was not sufficient to go before a jury. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment as it related to the procedural due process claim, holding that there is a triable dispute as to whether the Department’s process for determining which inmates are fit for release from security detention meets the minimum requirements of procedural due process.

Incumaa Alleges RLUIPA and Due Process Violation

In 1988, Incumaa began serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a prison operated by the Department. Incumaa is a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (“NOGE”), a group whose adherents are also known as “Fiver Percenters.” Some Five Percenters have referred to the NOGE as a religion while others have denied it being a religion.

In April 1995, a group of Five Percenters—including Incumaa—organized a prison riot. During the riot, the assailants took three Department employees hostage and held them for 11 hours during a standoff with police. Four law enforcement officers were hospitalized. On June 16, 1995, the Department designated the Fiver Percenters as a Security Threat Group (“STG”).

Due to his role in the 1995 riot, Incumaa was validated as a Five Percenter, taken out of the general population, and placed in the Maximum Security Unit. Incumaa was transferred to the Special Management Unit (“SMU”) in 2005, and he remained in SMU up until this trial. Both the Maximum Security Unit and the SMU are considered security detention and both house inmates who have engaged in violent behavior. At the time of trial, Incumaa was one of only two Five Percenters housed in the SMU. Other validated Five Percenters were permitted to reside in the general population and openly maintained their affiliation with the group. During the decades Incumaa spent in security detention, he did not commit a single disciplinary infraction.

Incumaa claimed that the SMU is substantially more restrictive than the general population. For example, in SMU, Incumaa is (1) confined to his cell 24 hours a day on non-recreation and non-shower days; (2) permitted to leave his cell for recreation only one hour approximately ten times per month; (3) allowed only a ten-minute shower three times per week; and (4) strip searched, made to lift and shake his genitalia, made to bend over, spread his buttocks in the direction of the officer, then made to squat and cough, and afterwards hand cuffed behind his back every time he leaves his cell.

Department regulations required a review of each SMU inmate’s candidacy for release every 30 days. There are three bases on which the Department may recommend reclassification and/or release from the SMU: (1) the inmate renounces affiliation with the STG; (2) improvement in behavioral level; or (3) the Department Director removes the inmate’s group from the STG list. In this case, renunciation of affiliation with the STG would entail Incumaa renouncing his affiliation with the NOGE, since the NOGE was labeled as a STG. The regulations require that the inmate receive a notice of the classification decision after each 30-day review period. The regulations do not require that any factual basis be provided for its decision to recommend against release from the SMU. The record contained copies of Incumaa’s classification notices spanning over several years.

On December 12, 2012, Incumaa filed a pro se complaint against the Department pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Incumaa claimed that the Department’s renunciation policy violated his rights under RLUIPA. Incumaa also claimed that, throughout his detention in SMU, the Department violated his procedural due process rights by failing to conduct meaningful review of whether he was fit for release to the general population. The district court granted the Department’s motion for summary judgment as to both claims. Incumaa filed a timely appeal.

The RLUIPA Claim is Without Merit

In relevant part, RLUIPA states: “No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person resided in or confined to an institution . . . .” Incumaa argued that the Department policy similarly imposed a substantial burden on his religious exercise because it forced him to choose between continued adherence to his religion—the NOGE—in solitary confinement on one hand, and the far more favorable living conditions of the general population on the other.

The Fourth Circuit, for the purposes of this case, assumed that the NOGE was a religious group entitled to protections. However, the Fourth Circuit said that Incumaa’s RLUIPA claim failed because the Department’s policy did not force him to renounce his religion under the NOGE. The Fourth Circuit looked to the Department’s three avenues for securing release from the SMU, and noted that renunciation was only one of three avenues, therefore Incumaa was not forced to renounce his religion under the NOGE in order to be released from SMU.

Moreover, the Court recognized that other Five Percenters reside in the general population and maintain their affiliation, demonstrating that the Department is not forcing a renunciation of religion. The Fourth Circuit held that no reasonable factfinder could conclude that Incumaa’s renunciation of his faith is a prerequisite to returning to the general population. Incumaa failed to demonstrate that the Department’s policy imposes a substantial burden on his religion, therefore, the Department prevailed on the RLUIPA claim as a matter of law.

Incumaa’s Due Process Claim Stands

The Fourth Circuit examined Incumaa’s procedural due process claim under a two-step analysis.

First, the Fourth Circuit determined whether Incumaa had a protectable liberty interest in avoiding security detention. The Court used Sandin v. Conner in which the Supreme Court declared that prisoners have a liberty interest in avoiding confinement conditions that impose atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life. The Fourth Circuit first noted that this part of the analysis is a “fact specific” inquiry and stated that in this case, Incumaa needed to demonstrate that his solitary confinement in security detention constitutes atypical and significant hardship in relation to the general population.

In Wilkinson v. Austin, the Supreme Court emphasized three factors for determining whether an inmate’s confinement constitutes atypical and significant hardship. These three factors are (1) the magnitude of confinement restrictions; (2) whether the administrative segregation is for an indefinite period; and (3) whether assignment to administrative segregation had any collateral consequences on the inmate’s sentence.

The Fourth Circuit looked to the Wilkinson factors, and pointed out that Incumaa demonstrated that his confinement conditions were severe. In particular, the Court looked to Incumaa’s limited activities outside of his cell, the near daily strip searches, and the confinement to a small cell in making its severity determination. Additionally, the Court held that Incumaa’s confinement to the SMU was extraordinary in its duration and indefiniteness. For these reasons, the Fourth Circuit found that Incumaa had a protectable liberty interest and the first part of this analysis was satisfied.

In the second part of the Fourth Circuit’s analysis, the Court evaluated whether the Department failed to afford Incumaa minimally adequate process to protect that liberty interest. The Court used a three-factor test recited in Mathews v. Eldridge in order to determine whether the Department’s procedural protections are sufficient to protect an inmate’s liberty interest. The three factors enunciated in Mathews are (1) the private interest that will be affected by the official action; (2) the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used; and (3) the Government’s interest.

Applying the Mathews three-factor test, the Fourth Circuit stated that the Department’s review process is inadequate and fails to honor the basic values of procedural due process. In particular, the Court stated that Incumaa has a significant private interest in leaving the restrictive conditions of the SMU, the risk of erroneous deprivation is high in this case because the Department’s review process is only single-layered and does not require a factual basis for its decisions, and the prison’s interests in the case do not outweigh Incumaa’s well-established right to receive notice of the grounds for his ongoing confinement.

Judgment Affirmed in Part, Reversed in Part and Remanded for Further Proceedings

Because Incumaa’s failed to establish a basis for his RLUIPA complaint, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court granting the Department’s motion for summary judgment as to that claim. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s order on Incumaa’s procedural due process claim because Incumaa has demonstrated a liberty interest in avoiding solitary confinement and the Department has not proven as a matter of law that it provided Incumaa meaningful review.