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  • Mitchell Kevett

Discrimination In Incarceration: Incarcerated People Litigate to Witness the Solar Eclipse In New York

The rights of incarcerated people have been historically overlooked and ignored in the United States, and this must change.[1]  It is critical for incarcerated people to be able to access and protect their rights because they are often exploited for free labor and receive little resources with which they can maintain their rights, which is part of what led the United Nations to issue a report finding that the United States has the “worst version of a racist criminal legal system.”[2]  Lawsuits and lobbying are two major means of expanding and protecting the rights of incarcerated people.[3]  In New York, incarcerated people recently had to file a lawsuit to fight for their right to simply witness a celestial event.[4]  Specifically, six incarcerated people sued for the right to witness the April 8, 2024 solar eclipse when they were informed they would not be allowed to.[5]  They argued that the solar eclipse holds religious significance to them and they believe witnessing such a rare celestial event could bring forth an incredibly important reflective period within themselves.[6]  For example, one of the plaintiffs pointed out that Christian congregations normally gather to observe together and celebrate “the handiwork of God” during solar eclipses.[7]  Fortunately, they reached a settlement before the eclipse occurred and were allowed to view it.[8] 

This lawsuit underscores the broader issue of the neglect of incarcerated individuals' rights and the need for systemic change. The denial of the opportunity to witness a celestial event might seem trivial to some, but it ultimately symbolizes larger patterns of dehumanization within the prison system.[9]

First, the exploitation of incarcerated people as free labor is a deeply ingrained issue that perpetuates their marginalization.[10]  Specifically, from manufacturing goods to maintaining facilities, prisons often rely on the labor of those they incarcerate without adequately compensating them or providing them with the resources they need to maintain their rights.[11]  Further, incarcerated people’s lack of access to resources and opportunities for personal growth exacerbates the problem of marginalization by way of education, mental health services, and religious practices often being restricted or inadequately supported within correctional facilities.[12]  Here, the significance of the solar eclipse litigation in New York highlights how moments of spiritual or personal significance are often overlooked or dismissed within the prison system.

Moreover, the fact that these individuals had to resort to legal action to assert their rights speaks volumes about the systemic barriers they face in advocating for themselves. Lawsuits and lobbying efforts can be effective means of challenging injustices within the system, but they should not be the only recourse available to incarcerated individuals seeking to assert their rights.

In order to truly address these issues, there must be a fundamental shift in the way we approach incarceration in the United States. This includes reevaluating the use of prison labor, investing in resources that support the well-being and dignity of incarcerated individuals, and promoting policies that prioritize rehabilitation and reintegration into society.[13]  Ultimately, the settlement reached in this case represents a small victory in the ongoing struggle for the rights of incarcerated people. Yet it also serves as a reminder of the larger battle that continues for all incarcerated individuals seeking to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.



[1] See Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames & Nicholas Turner, American History, Race, and Prison, Vᴇʀᴀ Iɴsᴛ. ᴏғ Jᴜsᴛ., https://www.vera.org/reimagining-prison-web-report/american-history-race-and-prison, (last visited Apr. 11, 2024).

[2] Hassan Kanu, US Prisons Rife with Human Rights Abuses, Especially Against Black People, UN Says, Rᴇᴜᴛᴇʀs (Oct. 4, 2023), https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/column-us-prisons-rife-with-human-rights-abuses-especially-against-black-people-2023-10-04/.

[3] See, e.g., Victor Rabinowitz, The Expansion of Prisoners' Rights, 16 Vɪʟʟ. L. Rᴇᴠ. 1047 (1971).

[4] Tony Aiello, New York prisoners sue to watch the April 8 eclipse, citing religious grounds, CBS N.Y. (Apr. 2, 2024), https://www.cbsnews.com/newyork/news/solar-eclipse-ny-prisoner-lawsuit/. 

[5] Id.

[6] Complaint at 2, Zielinski et al v. N.Y. Dep’t of Corrections and Community Supervision, No. 9:24-cv-450 (N.D.N.Y. March 29, 2024).  

[7] Id. at 4.   

[8] Phillip Marcello, 6 Inmates who Sued NY over eclipse lockdown order will get to view it after all, NBC N.Y. (Apr. 5, 2024), https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/eclipse-ny-watch-time-lawsuit-prisons/5292707/.

[9] See Antoine Davis, Dehumanization: The Incarcerated Experience, 21 Sᴇᴀᴛᴛʟᴇ J. ғᴏʀ Sᴏᴄ. Jᴜsᴛ., 689 (2023).

[10] ACLU & Gʟᴏʙᴀʟ Hᴜᴍ. Rᴛs. Cʟɪɴɪᴄ ᴀᴛ U. Cʜɪ. Sᴄʜ. ᴏғ L., Cᴀᴘᴛɪᴠᴇ Lᴀʙᴏʀ: Exᴘʟᴏɪᴛᴀᴛɪᴏɴ ᴏғ Iɴᴄᴀʀᴄᴇʀᴀᴛᴇᴅ Wᴏʀᴋᴇʀs [5] (2022).

[11] Id

[12] Id. at 13, 53, 62.

[13] See Eɴᴅɪɴɢ Mᴀss Iɴᴄᴀʀᴄᴇʀᴀᴛɪᴏɴ: Iᴅᴇᴀs ғʀᴏᴍ Tᴏᴅᴀʏ’s Lᴇᴀᴅᴇʀs (eds. Inimai Chettiar & Priya Raghavan, 2019), available at https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_EndingMassIncarceration_2.pdf.

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