The Virginia ACLU today announced that a settlement agreement has been reached in Burke vs. Clarke, a federal lawsuit on behalf of Randy Burke, a practicing Rastafarian who has been in solitary confinement for more than five years for refusing to cut his hair, even though it violated a principle of his religion.
While in solitary confinement, Burke was also denied the opportunity to practice his religion, including receiving church services, religious articles and festive meals.
Burke was originally incarcerated in the Virgin Islands and transferred to Red Onion State Prison in 2013 and later to Wallens Ridge State Prison in 2014, where he was held in the housing unit of the offenders, confined in a segregation 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 host Burke, making him eligible for a return to the Virgin Islands to be near his loved ones within 90 days. The agreement also includes a monetary settlement. Additionally, VDOC changed its grooming policy to no longer ban curly hair and closed its offender housing unit in Wallens Ridge.
“Sir. Burke has clearly established the constitutional right to practice his religion while incarcerated, and we are pleased that he is relieved of the abuse he suffered at the hands of VDOC,” said Eden Heilman, legal director of the Virginia ACLU. “He filed grievance after grievance, and like so many others in Virginia jails, his appeals went unanswered. Not only that, but he was also severely punished for the mere expression of his faith. He has endured years of torture for his religious beliefs – an unacceptable violation of his human rights. We wish him good luck as he is legitimately returned home to the Virgin Islands. “
“An unconstitutional and discriminatory policy led Mr. Burke to spend five years in solitary confinement for the offense of practicing his chosen religion. More than two and a half years after VDOC abandoned this discriminatory policy, Mr. Burke is finally receiving some relief for the injustice he has suffered, ”said Joshua Erlich of the Erlich law firm. “We are happy that Mr. Burke is returning home and we will continue to push the VDOC to abandon harmful and illegal policies to prevent the next injustice.”
Burke filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections in 2016 after exhausting the jail’s claim system without any redress. After initially losing his case in trial court, Burke obtained representation from the University of Washington Law School appeals clinic and successfully urged the Fourth Circuit appeals court to overturn the decision of the court of first instance.
The Virginia ACLU, in partnership with The Erlich Law Office, began representing Burke in 2021.
The Virginia ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit against VDOC (Thorpe, et al. v. Virginia Department of Corrections, et al.) seeking to end his 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 the VDOC will also be considered at the next General Assembly session.