New York inmates sue to watch solar eclipse after state orders prisons locked down

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New York inmates sue to watch solar eclipse after state orders prisons locked down

Inmates in New York are suing the state corrections department over the decision to lock down prisons during next Monday’s total solar eclipse.

The suit filed Friday in federal court in upstate New York argues that the April 8 lockdown violates inmates’ constitutional rights to practice their faiths by preventing them from taking part in a religiously significant event.

The plaintiffs are six men with varying religious backgrounds who are incarcerated at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne. They include a Baptist, a Muslim, a Seventh-Day Adventist and two practitioners of Santeria, as well as an atheist.


FILE – The moon is seen blotting out 80 percent of the sun during a solar eclipse in Washington, D.C., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)

“A solar eclipse is a rare, natural phenomenon with great religious significance to many,” the complaint reads, noting that Bible passages describe an eclipse-like phenomenon during Jesus’ crucifixion while sacred Islamic works describes a similar event when the Prophet Muhammad’s son died.

The celestial event, which was last visible in the U.S. in 2017 and won’t be seen in the country again until 2044, “warrant gathering, celebration, worship, and prayer,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit states that one of the named plaintiffs, an atheist, received special permission last month to view the eclipse using glasses that would be provided by the state, but that was before the system-wide lockdown was issued.

Four of the other plaintiffs subsequently sought permission but were denied by officials who ruled the solar eclipse is not listed as a holy day for their religions, the lawsuit states. The sixth inmate said he never received a response.

Thomas Mailey, a corrections department spokesperson, said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but takes all requests for religious accommodations under consideration. He said those related to viewing the eclipse are currently under review.

Daniel Martuscello III, the department’s acting commissioner, issued a memo March 11 announcing that all state correctional facilities will operate on a holiday schedule next Monday.

FILE - The moon is seen as it passes in front of the sun during a partial solar eclipse in Washington, D.C., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)


FILE – The moon is seen as it passes in front of the sun during a partial solar eclipse in Washington, D.C., Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet)

That means incarcerated individuals will remain in their housing units except for emergency situations from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., which are generally the normal hours for outdoor recreation in prisons, according to the lawsuit.

There will also be no visitation at nearly two dozen prisons in the path of totality next Monday, while visitation at other correctional facilities will end at 2 p.m.

Martuscello said the department will distribute solar eclipse safety glasses for staff and incarcerated individuals at prisons in the path of totality so they can view the eclipse from their assigned work location or housing units.

Communities in western and northern reaches of the state are expected to have the best viewing of the total eclipse, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Lake Placid and Plattsburgh.

The total eclipse is expected to be seen in those parts of New York around 3:15 p.m. and last mere minutes as the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, temporarily blocking the sun and turning day into night.

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