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Federal judge finds prison violated inmate's religious rights

Published September 14, 2012 7:21 pm

Courts • Corrections officials withheld the religious items he asked for, federal judge rules.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A former inmate at the Utah State Prison won a rare victory Friday when a U.S. District Court judge ruled Corrections officials violated his constitutional rights by not allowing him to practice certain rites of Odinism and banning access to associated literature.

U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell awarded Danny Lee Warner Jr. damages in the sum of $100 but denied his request for a compensatory and punitive award, noting prison officials had already taken steps to clarify policies and properly accommodate the needs of those practicing the religion. In a previous ruling, Campbell dismissed several of Warner's claims.

Campbell commended Warner, who represented himself in the complaint, for "the zealous defense of his rights and for the exemplary manner in which he has litigated his claims here." Most suits brought by inmates are dismissed on technicalities.

Warner is a follower of the Odhvegr religion, also known as Odinism or Asatru, a pre-Christian Nordic faith that encourages adherents to live a "virtuous existence" based on nine noble virtues: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness and perseverance. According to data provided earlier this year, there are 219 inmates at the prison who hold Odinist, Asatru or Druid beliefs. The faith is among 25 identified religions followed by Utah inmates.

In a complaint filed in July 2008, Warner alleged prison officials interfered with his ability to practice his religion and did not make the same accommodations it provides inmates of other faiths. Specifically, Warner said he was not given fast-boxes during the Winter Nights holiday and was not allowed to receive a "religious book" from National Vanguard Press.

Odinists engage in daylight fasts during the Winter Nights period, which begins with the fall equinox and ends on the first Saturday between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17. Corrections officials said inmates must request the meal boxes 45 days prior to the day needed, and Warner failed to do so.

Campbell said the ban on National Vanguard Press resulted from a misinterpretation of valid prison policies and has been corrected. The company published material espousing white nationalism.

When Warner filed his complaint, he was serving a sentence on theft, attempted purchase/possession of a dangerous weapon, attempted aggravated assault and identity fraud charges. In March, Warner was moved to the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, where he is serving a 63-month sentence on a firearm possession charge. Once Warner completes that sentence, he is expected to be returned to the Utah State Prison to finish his sentence.