A recent series of events has called into question whether the civil rights of inmates at Craggy Correctional Center are being violated.
For more than 56 years, the Rev. William Paul Austin has addressed the spiritual needs of others. For the last 29, that’s included celebrating Communion at the old Craggy state prison and Mass at the New Craggy medium- and minimum-security facilities, complete with sacramental bread and wine. Until recently, says the ordained Episcopal priest, there’d never been a problem.
But on April 28, Austin explains, he was approached by two guards who wanted to inspect the box in which he keeps his chalice. They found a bottle containing 3 ounces of wine and asked Austin if he’d brought it for himself. He answered that it was for Communion at the Thursday night Episcopal Mass.
A week later, Austin received a letter from the N.C. Department of Public Safety informing him that he’d been dismissed as a community volunteer for serving alcohol to inmates in violation of departmental policy. According to the Policy & Procedure Manual, “Only the religious official leading the rite may consume alcohol. Inmates are not allowed to consume ANY alcoholic beverages while in the custody of the Department of Public Safety.”
Dated May 5, the letter gave Austin 30 days to submit a written appeal to Cynthia Bostic, assistant director of support services at the Division of Prisons. Austin sent his letter May 25.
Bostic had 30 days to review the case and respond. “I will examine the case in its entirety and go through my regular protocol, gathering any available paperwork concerning the incident,” she told me in a phone interview. “I usually like to reach out and get all the information and any statements. I will review them and make my decision then, and if I need to make anyone aware of any concerns, then I’ll do that too.”
In a June 24 letter, Bostic told Austin that after reviewing the situation and taking into consideration his lengthy service as a volunteer, the department was willing to overturn his dismissal and reinstate him as a volunteer — with certain conditions. “Prior to your reinstatement,” the letter continued, “you will be required to meet with Mountain Region management staff, attend a community volunteer orientation session and serve a period of probation.”
Asheville attorney Greg Hilderbran is chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. In that role, he provides legal advice to Bishop Porter Taylor and the governing bodies of the churches in the diocese.
“For decades, Father Austin has provided pastoral care to those persons who are imprisoned. In doing so, he has celebrated Holy Communion with inmates, sharing with them sacramental bread and wine,” notes Hilderbran. “In serving sacramental wine as part of this celebration, Father Austin has relied upon North Carolina General Statute 14-258.1, which provides that it is not unlawful for a priest to do so as part of a religious service. This statute remains in effect.”
In three separate places, the law clearly makes an exception for “an ordained minister or rabbi who gives sacramental wine to an inmate as part of a religious service.” One would think that a North Carolina general statute would prevail over a Department of Public Safety policy.
But communications director Pamela Walker says the department’s Office of General Counsel “doesn’t feel like” the policy contradicts state law. The law, she explains, decriminalizes giving alcohol to prisoners under certain circumstances. “It doesn’t dictate that the department must allow alcohol in its prisons. Our Division of Prisons has a designated policy that says it is a violation.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has also weighed in on prisoners’ religious freedom.
Last August, Kristine Guerra, the primary courts reporter for The Indianapolis Star, wrote, “The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that a Muslim prisoner can be allowed to grow his beard as part of his religious rights, despite claims by the Arkansas Department of Correction that doing so poses security risks.”
“Moreover,” the report continued, “in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress can require state institutions to accommodate reasonable religious needs of those under their control, according to a report by The Washington Post. In that case, Ohio argued that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was enacted in 2000, creates an incentive for inmates to profess a religious belief so they can receive certain types of privileges that are not available to other inmates. The court rejected that argument.”
The law in question protects the religious rights of prisoners in facilities that receive federal money. In January 2015, correspondent Richard Wolf, who covers the Supreme Court for USA Today, wrote, “A Supreme Court that has extended the reach of religion into public life in recent years ruled Tuesday that spirituality can overcome even prison security concerns.”
Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, had persuaded the court to hear his case with a 15-page, handwritten petition citing his desire to keep a beard as part of his Muslim faith. “The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by the Arkansas Department of Correction,” the USA Today article reported. “Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man’s religious right. The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state’s no-beard policy.”
Because of his age and health concerns, Austin feels he’s nearing the end of his ministry. “It’s not about me: It’s about the inmates,” he explains. “They have rights. My grandmother’s great-uncle, [Supreme Court Justice] Joseph Story, said, ‘No one is above the law.’”
Amen to that. Dismissing Austin without so much as a warning after almost three decades of service to the inmates at Craggy Correctional Center seems overly harsh. He finds the terms of the reinstatement offer ridiculous: After all this time, why does he need an orientation? Why should he be on probation when he didn’t break the law?
And in any case, what does Austin’s experience — and the blatant contradiction between state law and departmental policy — say about the potential for further instances of such violations of prisoners’ rights in the future?
Freelance journalist Mark-Ellis Bennett has lived in Asheville since 1985.