Six New York Inmates Successfully Sue to Watch the Total Solar Eclipse

The state’s prison agency settled a lawsuit with the incarcerated men, allowing them to watch the eclipse on religious grounds. But for now, the rest of New York’s correctional facilities will remain locked down on April 8

Two men wearing eclipse glasses
The six inmates who filed the lawsuit come from different religious backgrounds but agree that the total solar eclipse is significant to their beliefs. NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

On April 8, millions of North Americans will go outside, look up and watch the moon briefly obscure the sun’s light during a total solar eclipse. But incarcerated people in New York—for the most part—won’t be among them, because the state has decided to lock down all its correctional facilities during the rare celestial event.

Last week, six incarcerated men filed a lawsuit with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision over the lockdown. They argued that the April 8 solar eclipse is a “religious event that they must witness and reflect on to observe their faiths,” according to court documents, as reported by the New York Times’ Erin Nolan.

Now, the New York prison agency has agreed to settle the lawsuit, which means it will allow the six plaintiffs to view the celestial event and provide them with eclipse glasses, reports Hell Gate’s Rebecca McCray. But as of April 4, that decision applies only to this small group—other prisoners do not have the green light. Still, the move means that other inmates could get permission from the state to watch the eclipse on religious grounds.

The six men are incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, which is located upstate, about 100 miles northwest of New York City. The prison is outside the path of totality, or the swath of Earth from which the moon appears to fully block the sun. However, a partial eclipse will still be visible from Woodbourne and throughout the contiguous states.

The lawsuit’s origins can be traced to January, when one of the inmates, Jeremy Zielinski, asked if he could watch the April 8 eclipse from the facility’s main outdoor area. Prison officials agreed to his request and offered to provide him with eclipse glasses. Later, Zielinski asked if other inmates could join him.

However, on March 11, a statewide memo went out directing all correctional facilities to lock down on April 8 during outdoor recreation hours, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. In New York, the eclipse is expected to begin a little after 2 p.m. and end around 4:30 p.m.

The memo also banned visitation at the 23 facilities located within the path of totality for the entire day on April 8. For the facilities outside the path of totality, it required visitation to end at 2 p.m. The rules were intended to keep staff, visitors and inmates safe, according to the memo.

“Incarcerated individuals will remain in housing units except for emergency situations,” wrote Daniel F. Martuscello III, the acting commissioner of the state’s corrections department, in the memo.

Prison officials are planning to distribute eclipse glasses to inmates within the path of totality “in the event they will be able to view the eclipse from their assigned work location or housing units,” a department spokesperson told ABC News’ Julia Reinstein prior to the settlement.

“Religious requests related to viewing the eclipse are currently under review,” the spokesperson added.

The inmates who filed the lawsuit represent multiple religious backgrounds: Zielinski is an atheist, one is a Muslim, one is a Baptist, one is a Seventh-Day Adventist and two practice Santería. However, despite these differences, they all agree that the total solar eclipse holds religious significance.

“Religious freedom for everyone in this country is paramount,” says Madeline Byrd, one of the attorneys representing the inmates, to North Country Public Radio’s Emily Russell. “If you’re incarcerated, you’re not guaranteed many rights, but one of the rights that you are guaranteed… is the right to practice your sincerely held religious beliefs.”

For Zielinski, observing the eclipse will be a celebration of science and reason. Other plaintiffs cited the eclipse as a time for prayer or spiritual reflection. Oscar Nunez, who practices Santería, said that the event is a “rare religious experience that will bring blessings and help me reach my religious goals,” per the Washington Post’s Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Justine McDaniel.

According to the settlement, inmates who want to view the eclipse for non-religious reasons will not be allowed to do so, per Hell Gate. But the plaintiffs tell the publication that they want other incarcerated people to have the chance to experience the eclipse as well.

Several of them noted they may never have another chance to see a total solar eclipse. The next one that will be visible from the contiguous U.S. will be in 2044, and that path of totality will touch only three states: Montana, North Dakota and a tiny corner of South Dakota. April 8 will be the first time New York has experienced totality since 1925. The next total eclipse to be visible from the state specifically will not take place until 2079.

“It will be 20 years before another opportunity like this exists,” David Haigh, the inmate who is a Seventh-Day Adventist, told Hell Gate before the settlement. “I don’t believe that just because I am incarcerated that I should be denied this opportunity, especially when this eclipse is scheduled to happen during normal outside recreation time. Even for a non-religious person, this eclipse could hold some sort of special meaning.”

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