Upon arrival at New York prisons, new inmates undergo a comprehensive screening process to detect communicable diseases like tuberculosis (TB). This testing is essential due to the highly contagious nature of TB and the close living quarters within correctional facilities, which create an environment conducive to disease transmission.
The screening typically involves a series of steps, starting with a thorough medical history review and physical examination. Inmates are often required to undergo a tuberculin skin test (TST) or a blood test to check for TB infection. Those who test positive may undergo further evaluation, including chest X-rays, to confirm the presence of active TB disease.
However, some inmates object to some screening tests based on religious belief. The Constitution guarantees inmates freedom of speech and freedom to practice their religion of choice. Failure to do so may be a type of inmate abuse. In Selah v. Goord, 00-CV-644 (N.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2003), plaintff Selam Selah, an inmate at Auburn Correctional Facility, objected to tuberculosis screening based on religious beliefs. An inmate who refuses the PPD test is placed in tuberculin hold.
The primary issue that the court had to decide in this case was the constitutionality and rationality of the policy implemented by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCS) in New York regarding the handling of inmates who object to undergoing the tuberculosis (TB) skin test on religious grounds.
Specifically, the court had to determine whether DOCS’ policy of placing inmates who objected to the TB skin test in tuberculin hold for a year was arbitrary, irrational, or violative of their constitutional rights, particularly the right to freely exercise their religion.
The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCS) in New York has presented several justifications for their policy of placing prisoners objecting to the TB skin test in tuberculin hold for a year. These include coercion, limiting exposure to others, fostering better monitoring, and early identification and treatment of ill inmates. However, the court scrutinized each rationale and found discrepancies.
- Coercion: The court determined that the length of tuberculin hold is not necessary for coercion, as most inmates would likely consent to the test sooner. Therefore, prolonged confinement does not serve the purpose of coercion effectively.
- Monitoring: While DOCS argued that confining inmates facilitates monitoring, expert testimony contradicted this, indicating no significant difference in monitoring between confined and general population inmates.
- Limiting Contacts: This was deemed the most persuasive argument, particularly during contact tracing. The court acknowledged the legitimacy of limiting exposure, especially when an inmate is potentially contagious without showing symptoms.
Despite acknowledging some rationality in isolating objectors upon initial entry to DOCS, the court found the policy arbitrary and irrational for inmates objecting to annual testing, like Selah. The court emphasized the lack of necessity for extended confinement, especially when alternatives like monitoring methods exist.
Concerns about the impact on the prison setting, including health and safety of inmates and staff, as well as the potential influx of religious objectors, were also addressed and dismissed by the court based on evidence and precedent.
The court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Selah, indicating a likelihood of success in challenging DOCS’ policy based on its arbitrariness and irrationality in certain circumstances. This indicates that the court has temporarily halted the enforcement of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s (DOCS) policy in favor of Selah, the plaintiff, until a final decision is reached on the case. By granting a preliminary injunction, the court recognizes the potential validity of Selah’s challenge against DOCS’ policy, particularly regarding its arbitrariness and irrationality under specific circumstances. This decision suggests that Selah has presented a strong case and is likely to succeed in challenging the policy’s legality.
However, it’s essential to note what this statement does not mean. Firstly, it does not signify a final judgment on the case; rather, it’s a temporary measure until the court can thoroughly examine all evidence and arguments. Secondly, it doesn’t automatically invalidate DOCS’ policy altogether; it merely suspends its enforcement during the legal proceedings. Lastly, the granting of a preliminary injunction does not necessarily indicate a definitive ruling in Selah’s favor; it simply acknowledges the potential strength of his legal argument and the need for further consideration by the court.