Solar eclipse: New York inmates sue for 'religious' viewing after prisons order lockdowns

Six violent felons incarcerated in New York are suing for the right to view next week’s total solar eclipse despite a statewide prison lockdown, citing the “religious significance” of the event. 

The inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in Woodbourne – a Baptist, a Muslim, a Seventh-Day Adventist, two Santeria practitioners and one atheist – argue that barring them from viewing the astronomical spectacle would infringe upon their constitutional religious rights.

Each has “expressed a sincerely held religious belief that April’s solar eclipse is a religious event that they must witness and reflect on to observe their faiths,” according to the complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of New York last Friday.

“A solar eclipse is a rare, natural phenomenon with great religious significance to many,” reads the lawsuit, which was filed against the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and its top officials.


total solar eclipse

Six prisoners at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York argue that a statewide prison lockdown during the total solar eclipse on April 8 would violate their constitutional rights to practice their respective religions. (iStock)

Acting DOC Commissioner Daniel Martuscello III issued a directive to all 44 prisons in the state, mandating that “all inmates [would] remain in housing units except for emergency situations” during the eclipse between 2 and 5 p.m. on April 8.

Nearly two dozen New York prisons will be in the path of totality – when the moon entirely blocks the path of the sun – and will not allow visitors that day.

Inmate Jeremy Zielinski was initially granted permission to view the eclipse, but his permission was revoked when the lockdowns were announced last month, he said. 

Zielinski, an atheist, has been behind bars at Woodbourne since September 2016 on a first-degree rape charge, according to DOC records. Previously, he spent four years in Coxsackie Correctional Facility for promoting a sexual performance by a child, attempting to distribute indecent material to a minor and bail jumping.

The eclipse is significant to his faith, according to the lawsuit, because atheists “celebrate science and reason.”


Eclipse-viewing glasses

A New York Department of Corrections spokesperson said prisoners who will be able to view the event from their housing units will be provided with eclipse-viewing glasses to protect their eyes and that the lockdown is intended to protect prisoners and staff.

“[Zielinski] sincerely believes that observing the solar eclipse in the presence of others who have sincerely held religious beliefs of its importance is critical to practicing his faith… because it is a central aspect of atheism to celebrate common humanity and bring people together to encourage people to find common ground,” the document states.

The Woodbourne facility granted Zielinski’s request to recognize atheism as an official religion last month, and it initially agreed to provide him with protective glasses to watch the event but revoked the privilege when the lockdown directive was sent out.

An event believed to be an eclipse is described in the Muslim book of Hadith when Muhammad’s son died – there is a specific prayer relayed in the book for Muslims to recite when they find themselves in the path of an eclipse.

Thus, Jean Desmarat argues that his constitutional rights will be violated if he is not allowed to view the eclipse.

Desmarat is serving a minimum sentence of 25 years for second-degree murder, according to Department of Corrections records.

Desmarat strangled Frantz St. Lot with his bare hands in a motel room in June 2002, according to court documents, leaving the other man’s body hogtied with black bags over his head and legs. Torn bills were found on St. Lot’s corpse; Desmarat told hotel staff who ran to the room when they heard screaming that St. Lot owed him money, according to court documents.

“A solar eclipse is a rare, natural phenomenon with great religious significance to many.”

— Inmates said in their lawsuit

David Haigh, locked up on first-degree manslaughter charges, identified as a Seventh-day Adventist – he has practiced since 2005 and was a member of Crusaders for Christ during his tenure at Penn State and Purdue Universities, according to the lawsuit.

Passages in the Bible detailing “darkness over the whole land” during Jesus Christ’s crucifixion are interpreted by many Christians as an eclipse.

Observing the eclipse, according to the lawsuit, “is key to [Haigh’s] faith to observe the solar eclipse and reflect on what he believes is the same phenomenon experienced by Jesus Christ before he died.”


Haigh explained how meaningful the celestial event would be to him in an interview with news outlet Hell Gate: “It will be 20 years before another opportunity like this exists,” he said. “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.”

Baptist Travis Hudson holds similar sentiments about the significance of the eclipse, according to the lawsuit. He was convicted of first-degree course of sexual conduct with a child.

Two of the inmates named in the suit – Bruce Moses and Oscar Nuñez – practice Santeria, a faith mixing Catholicism and African traditions. Moses wishes to make a spiritual offering during the event, while Nuñez wishes to “pray and chant to the moon and the sun for blessings while they meet,” according to the complaint.

Moses was convicted of second-degree attempted assault, second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and third-degree drug possession; Nuñez is incarcerated on second-degree attempted murder charges and has a prior conviction for first-degree robbery. 

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

— State spokesperson

A full solar eclipse was last seen in the U.S. in 2017 – the next won’t be visible in the country again until 2044. All six inmates will be eligible for parole before 2029, according to state records. 

A spokesperson for the DOCCS told Fox News Digital that the lockdown is intended to “ensure the safety” of prisoners and staff and that eclipse safety glasses will be distributed to all prisoners in the path of totality whose cells or assigned work locations would allow them to see the event from inside. 

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


Attorneys with the New York State Office of the Attorney General and those representing the Woodbourne inmates could not immediately be reached for comment on the filing.

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