In a case that challenges the R.I. Department of Corrections’ (RIDOC) restrictive policies governing the religious freedom of people incarcerated at the ACI, cooperating attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against DOC officials for refusing to accommodate the religious practices of a Native American prisoner.
The lawsuit, filed by Jared Goldstein, Director of the RWU Law Prisoners’ Rights Litigation Clinic, and ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger, argues that RIDOC’s refusal to allow the prisoner to wear an Apache headband, along with its policy of deciding what religious beliefs and practices align with the person’s religious designation, violates his rights under a federal law designed to protect the religious freedom of incarcerated individuals.
The plaintiff, Wolf Pawochawog-Mequinosh, is Native American and was raised in the spiritual tradition of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Wolf believes that wearing the headband “expresses his sincere religious beliefs arising from the Apache tradition.” The lawsuit notes that the DOC allows Muslim and Jewish prisoners to wear kufis and yarmulkes, and that Native American headbands are recognized as a religious item by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Nonetheless, RIDOC has repeatedly denied Wolf’s requests for a headband on the grounds that his religion is designated as “Pagan/Wiccan” in RIDOC’s data management system and an Apache headband is not an approved religious item for people with that designation and, further, Apache headbands have not been approved as a religious item in any RIDOC facility. But the lawsuit points out that RIDOC’s system does not include a religious designation for adherents of Native American religious traditions, and the designation chosen “determines the religious observances [prisoners] will be allowed to attend and the religious items they will be allowed to obtain.”
Wolf chose the Pagan/Wiccan designation because it allows him to obtain rune stones and tarot cards, which are also an important part of his religious beliefs. If he chose the catch-all designation of “other” as his religion, as some officials suggested he do, he would lose his right to have tarot cards and rune stones and would still likely be denied the right to wear a headband anyway since it is not approved as a religious item at the ACI.
The lawsuit claims that, by denying his right to wear an Apache headband and “restricting the ability of individuals like Wolf to practice religion when their practices do not fit within the limited and rigid religious designation RIDOC employs,” the agency has violated Wolf’s right to the free exercise of religion as protected by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That law bars states from imposing any substantial burden on a prisoner’s exercise of religion unless it furthers a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means available.
The lawsuit reviews the four times that Wolf filed grievances with the prison administration to seek the right to obtain a headband and the Kafkaesque responses they elicited, including rejections of his appeals twice on the grounds that he did not follow proper procedures in filing his grievance, but without explaining what he had done improperly.
The suit seeks a court order allowing Wolf to “obtain and wear an Apache headband, without giving up his ability to practice other aspects of his sincere religious beliefs, including by possessing and using rune stones and tarot cards,” whether or not they align with his religious designation in DOC’s system. The suit also requests the issuance of an injunction ordering RIDOC to “revise its policies and procedures to allow individuals whose religious beliefs and practices do not fit within RIDOC’s system of religious designations to exercise their sincere religious beliefs and practices even when those beliefs and practices do not align with the beliefs and practices that RIDOC has approved for the religious designations.”
In 2021, Wolf, formerly known as Brian Brownell, filed a petition in state court to change his name to express his Apache heritage and faith. He noted that he was given the name Pawochawog-Mequinosh as a child by an Apache elder, and that changing his legal name was important to him because it connected him to his “spirituality, religion, and history.” The petition was granted a year later.
Wolf said today: “I just want to be able to practice my religion and to be able to use the artifacts for my religion without unjustified restrictions, like other religions are permitted to do. I don’t feel that this is too much to ask for.”
Attorney Goldstein said: “This should be a simple case. DOC has no reason to treat a Native American who wants to wear a headband to express his religious faith any differently than it treats Muslims and Jews who want to wear kufis and yarmulkes to express their faith. DOC needs to change its policies that put all incarcerated people into specific religious categories and that makes no allowances for people like Wolf who don’t fit into these categories.”
ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger added: “Wolf Pawochawog-Mequinosh observes the spiritual and religious tradition of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. His efforts to obtain simple religious items to practice his faith should not consume four years and require a federal court lawsuit. Fortunately, federal law and the First Amendment require that even in prison, the custodians do not get to dictate what is an accepted religion and how it should be practiced.”