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Staples v. NH State Prison, Warden

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

March 17, 2017

Frank Staples
NH State Prison, Warden, et al. Opinion No. 2017 DNH 046

          Donna J. Brown, Esq. Francis Charles Fredericks, Esq. Seth Michael Zoracki, Esq.


          Paul Barbadoro United States District Judge

         Frank Staples practices Taoism and his religious beliefs require that he not shave his beard. Staples claims that he was harassed while incarcerated at the New Hampshire State Prison because he refused to comply with the prison's beard policy. He asserts that the prison denied him a Taoist diet, access to Taoist literature, and prevented him from obtaining religious counseling. He also alleges that he was harassed after filing grievances and a lawsuit in an effort to protect his constitutional rights. The harassment took the form of physical and mental abuse, placement in restrictive housing, and denial of parole.

         Staples has filed a rambling, vague, and scattershot amended complaint against the Prison Warden, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, members of the Parole Board, the Prison Chaplain, and fourteen other prison employees.[1] He asserts claims under the First Amendment's Free Exercise, Establishment, and Petition Clauses, the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, and the Eighth Amendment.[2] Defendants have responded with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Doc. No. 38.

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         The New Hampshire State Prison has a policy prohibiting inmates from growing beards longer than 1/4 inch. The policy aims to address security concerns posed by longer beards, which can conceal contraband and make it difficult to identify inmates. Staples refused to comply with the prison's beard policy and grew a long beard because his religious beliefs preclude him from maintaining a shorter beard. As a result, he was harassed, denied parole, and placed in restrictive housing.

         Staples was placed in restrictive housing for much of his incarceration. On entering the prison as a pretrial detainee, he was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), where inmates are locked in their cells for twenty-three hours a day. He remained there for much of his incarceration, with exceptions that included stints in the Secure Psychiatric Unit (SPU), the Health Services Center, the “hole, ” and the Closed Custody Unit (CCU).[4] He was denied a transfer to the Medium South Unit - which was less restrictive, offered better amenities, and would have improved his chances of being released on parole - all because of security concerns about his beard.

         Staples first entered the prison as a pretrial detainee, but in April 2013 was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive sentences. Although Staples had accumulated enough pretrial credit to be immediately eligible for parole on his first sentence, the parole board initially denied him parole because he refused to attend his parole hearing. At a second hearing later that year, the board paroled Staples from his first sentence to his second sentence but refused to give him any credit on the second sentence for time served on the first. In April 2014, the board declined to parole Staples on his second sentence because of his security classification, which the board members knew was based on his refusal to shave. Staples was finally granted parole on his second sentence in April 2015, but his release from prison was delayed until October 2015.

         In addition to being placed in restrictive housing and denied parole, Staples alleges that correctional officers harassed him because he refused to shave his beard. Officer Paul Cascio repeatedly threatened to forcefully shave Staples' beard and instructed prison staff to go to Staples' cell every day and prepare him for shaving. Another officer, Robert Parent, attempted to pressure Staples to shave by asking, loudly enough to be overheard by other inmates, “Why are you PC'ing? Why do you want to PC?” Staples alleges that the term “PC” refers to “an inmate who is seen as an informant or ‘snitch, '” and an inmate carrying that label “could be extorted, beaten, raped and even killed by other inmates.” Doc. No. 33 at 9. Officer Parent then gave Staples a statement form and instructed him to “fill it out telling me why you want to be PC.” Id. When Staples tore the form in half, Officer Parent “slammed [him] against a [cement] support pillar.” Id. at 10, 27. Staples hit his head and severely injured his shoulder. In another instance of harassment, Staples was transferred “from cell to cell for no apparent reason other than retaliation, ” including four transfers in one month. Id. at 14. At one cell, Officer Marc Miller threatened to pepper-spray Staples if he did not clean another inmate's feces. Around this time, Staples went on a hunger strike and became suicidal. Soon after, in November 2014, Staples filed a pro se complaint in this court challenging defendants' refusal to accommodate his beard.[5]

         Staples also alleges that defendants refused to accommodate his Taoism in other ways. The prison chaplain did not visit him or provide him with religious counseling and services, the prison library did not have Taoist reading materials, even though materials from other religions were available, and Staples' request for a religious diet was not accommodated, even though other religious diets were accommodated. In response, Staples repeatedly filed internal grievances.

         Defendants reacted to the internal grievances and lawsuit by retaliating against Staples. Shortly after Staples filed his lawsuit, he was placed in punitive segregation, where he was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day. Defendants also gave him a “Hurt Feelings Report” - “a fake grievance report that mocks complaints to law enforcement as ‘whining.'” Id. at 16. Officer Scott Marshall inquired whether Staples had received the report, and later pepper-sprayed Staples without justification while he was naked in his cell. In another incident, Officer Miller “threatened to throw [Staples] down a set of stairs and then ‘ride' him down the stairs.” Id. at 19.

         Staples' treatment while incarcerated caused him physical, psychological, and emotional harm, including suicidal ideation. On October 9, 2015, Staples was released on parole, and this suit followed.


         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiff must make factual allegations sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible if it pleads “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         In deciding a motion to dismiss, I employ a two-step approach. See Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011). First, I screen the complaint for statements that “merely offer legal conclusions couched as fact or threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action.” Id. (citation, internal quotation marks, and alterations omitted). A claim consisting of little more than “allegations that merely parrot the elements of the cause of action” may be dismissed. Id. Second, I credit as true all non-conclusory factual allegations and the reasonable inferences drawn from those allegations, and then determine if the claim is plausible. Id. The plausibility requirement “simply calls for enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” of illegal conduct. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. The “make-or-break standard” is that those allegations and inferences, “taken as true, must state a plausible, not a merely conceivable, case for relief.” Sepúlveda-Villarini v. Dep't of Educ., 628 F.3d 25, 29 (1st Cir. 2010); see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. . . .”).

         II. ANALYSIS

         Staples presents a panoply of constitutional claims seeking damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[6] Defendants argue that I should dismiss the complaint in its entirety because the parole board members are entitled to absolute immunity, and the remaining defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. I examine each of the defendants' arguments in turn.

         A. ...

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