Law Students Win Ramadan Prison Diet Appeal

By William Peacock, Esq. on February 18, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Gary Wall is an inmate housed at Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) in Pound, Virginia. As a member of the Nation of Islam, he observed Ramadan in 2008 and 2009. Prison officials provide special meals to accommodate Muslims' sunrise-to-sunset fasting.

After half the prison population signed up for Ramadan in 2009, the prison adopted a special policy requiring those wishing to participate to prove the sincerity of their beliefs by providing physical evidence, such as a Quran, a prayer rug, or some other physical article of faith. Unfortunately for Wall, the Virginia Department of Corrections had lost all of his belongings when he was transferred to ROSP.

Despite producing a court judgment as proof of the lost items, documents showing that he was receiving religion-compliant meals throughout the year, and proof of his past participation in Ramadan, the prison refused to add him to the list.

District Court: Moot and Qualified Immunity

The district court held that the case was moot, as the policy had been changed (again) since 2010. The court also held that qualified immunity barred Wall from obtaining monetary relief.

Not Moot

In dismissing voluntary cessation arguments, the Fourth Circuit held that the situation, despite being remedies, was capable of repetition. In fact, repetition was even more likely considering the policy had been changed multiple times since 2009.

No Qualified Immunity

As for immunity from monetary damages, the district court was again overruled, as the law is clearly established in the Fourth Circuit, and elsewhere, that a prisoner has a right to a religion-compliant diet. In 2006, the Fourth Circuit clearly stated in Lovelace v. Lee that:

"Under ... the Free Exercise Clause ..., a prisoner has a 'clearly established ... right to a diet consistent with his ... religious scruples,' including proper food during Ramadan."

The court also noted that while prison officials may appropriately question the sincerity of a prisoner's belief, the arbitrary and rigid test that the prison employed here, requiring physical proof, does not comply with the applicable Turner test.

Congrats William & Mary!

Besides being important precedent for prisoners' rights, mootness arguments, and qualified immunity, this case was special for another reason: it was argued and briefed by law students from the William & Mary Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

The school notes that Elizabeth Turner '14 presented oral argument before the panel on Dec. 11, 2013, with Skyler Peacock (no relation) '14 providing oral argument support. The briefs were drafted by Alexa Roggenkamp '13 and Kelci Block '13 with help from Robert Luck of Reed Smith LLP.

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