The ACLU of Virginia announced today that a settlement agreement was reached in Burke v. Clarke, a federal lawsuit on behalf of Randy Burke, a practicing Rastafarian who was put in solitary confinement for over five years for refusing to cut his hair, even though it violated a tenet of his religion. During his time in solitary confinement, he was also denied opportunities to practice his religion, including receiving religious services, religious items, and holiday meals.
Mr. Burke was originally incarcerated in the Virgin Islands and was transferred to Red Onion State Prison in April 2013 and later to Wallens Ridge State Prison in May 2014, where he was held in the “Violators Housing Unit,” confined to a solitary cell for 21 hours a day, until the unit closed in 2019.
The settlement agreement includes the termination of VDOC’s contract with the Virgin Islands to house Mr. Burke, making him eligible for transfer back to the Virgin Islands to be near his loved ones within 90 days. The agreement also includes a monetary settlement. Additionally, VDOC amended its grooming policy to no longer prohibit locked hair and has closed its Violators Housing Unit at Wallens Ridge.
“Mr. Burke has a clearly established the constitutional right to practice his religion while incarcerated, and we’re glad he has some relief from the abuse he has experienced at the hands of VDOC,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “He filed grievance after grievance, and like so many others in Virginia prisons, his pleas went unanswered. Not only that, but he was also severely punished for the simple expression of his faith. He endured years of torture for his religious beliefs – an unacceptable violation of his human rights. We wish him well as he is rightfully returned home to the Virgin Islands.”
Mr. Burke filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) in August 2016 after exhausting the prison’s grievance system with no relief. After initially losing his case in the trial court, Mr. Burke obtained representation from the Appellate Clinic at Washington University School of Law and successfully urged the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the trial court’s decision. The ACLU of Virginia, partnering with the Erlich Law Office, began representing Mr. Burke in May 2021.
The ACLU of Virginia has filed a class-action lawsuit against VDOC (Thorpe, et al. v. Virginia Department of Corrections, et al.) seeking an end to its use of solitary confinement at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge State Prison. Legislation to end solitary confinement in all Virginia prisons and to create independent oversight over VDOC will also be considered in the upcoming General Assembly session.
Case information is available here: https://acluva.org/en/cases/randy-burke-v-harold-clarke-et-al