Incarcerated Inmates Sue New York Prison System Over Denied Access to Once-in-a-Lifetime Solar Eclipse

Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York is facing a lawsuit filed by inmates who claim that the decision to prevent them from witnessing next week’s total solar eclipse violates their religious freedoms. The celestial phenomenon, which has not been visible in New York since 1925 and won’t be seen again in the state until 2079, holds significant religious value for people of various faiths, according to the complaint filed in federal court. The New York corrections officials instituted a lockdown at its facilities, including the Woodbourne Correctional Facility, on April 8, the day of the eclipse, to prevent inmates from congregating and watching the event. In response, the inmates, representing different religious backgrounds, are demanding that the corrections department rescind the lockdown memo and provide eclipse glasses to all inmates who want to view the solar event.

The lawsuit highlights the religious significance of eclipses for many faiths. In Christianity, the darkness that accompanied Jesus’ crucifixion has been interpreted as an eclipse. Similarly, in Islam, sacred texts describe the passing of the Prophet Muhammad’s son during an eclipse. In Santeria, practitioners perform chanting rituals during solar eclipses. Even for atheists, an eclipse is seen as a time to appreciate the natural wonders of the universe. The plaintiffs argue that this event holds monumental religious significance for many and should not be disregarded.

The decision to enforce a prison lockdown during the eclipse has drawn criticism. One inmate, an atheist, was initially granted permission to view the eclipse but was later denied along with four others. The corrections department has ordered solar eclipse glasses for staff and inmates with access to windows. However, the lawsuit claims that this uneven distribution denies some inmates their right to view the eclipse. The six plaintiffs are asking the court to allow them to congregate in the prison yard during the eclipse, as it falls during the usual time for outdoor recreation.

The corrections department has until April 22 to respond to the lawsuit. The inmates, along with their attorneys, hope for a quicker resolution, within a week. They argue that gathering to celebrate and reflect on an event greater than themselves is a basic human need, particularly for individuals who are serving time and aspire to reintegrate into society.

These inmates are seeking to protect their religious freedoms and engage in a moment of reflection and redemption. The outcome of this lawsuit will determine whether Woodbourne Correctional Facility inmates will be able to witness the rare cosmic event.