Aug. 21, 2013 – A Wisconsin prison inmate who adopted a “spiritual name” challenged a prison policy on name changes by inmates. Recently, a federal appeals court upheld the policy and rejected the inmate’s constitutional and statutory claims.
Norman Green, the legal name he had when he was convicted for murder, wanted to be called Prince Atum-Ra Uhuru Mutawakkil while serving his prison sentence.
Wisconsin prisons identify inmates according to the name on conviction judgments, so-called “committed names.” Inmates can adopt informal second names, but only inside.
For instance, Green could not receive letters that were addressed only to Prince Atum-Ra Uhuru Mutawakkil,” a name tied to his belief in “The Divine Vision of Growth & Development.” He could only receive them if his committed name was also included.
If an inmate wants a formal name change, he or she must comply with Wis. Stat. section 786.36, which allows Wisconsin residents to petition for a formal name change.
Inmates don’t have the luxury of a common law rule, announced in State v. Hansford, 219 Wis. 2d 226 (Wis. 1998), that also lets Wisconsin residents change their names informally through continuous and consistent use, where no fraudulent purpose exists.
Green argued that federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), required the prison to formally recognize his spiritual name. Green also argued that the prison’s policy violated his free speech rights.
But in Green v. Huibregtse et al., No. 12-3121 (Aug. 15, 2013), a three-judge panel for Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Green’s arguments. However, the court agreed to refer to Green as Mutawakkil in the opinion, because that was his preference.
The panel, in an opinion by Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook, noted a prior ruling that rejected a constitutional challenge to a similar Illinois prison policy.
“We noted in Azeez that legitimate interests in maintaining security and order within prisons support requiring inmates to use their committed names unless a state court approves a change-of-name application,” Judge Easterbrook wrote.
In addition, the panel struck down Mutawakkil’s RLUIPA argument on the ground that Mutawakkil had not applied for a formal name change under section 786.36.
RLUIPA prevents governments from imposing substantial burdens on religion without a good reason, that is, without a compelling governmental interest.
“For an inmate who finds his committed name religiously intolerable, the statutory question would be whether the need to use the judicial name-change mechanism creates a ‘substantial burden,’” Judge Easterbrook wrote. “That could depend on how readily state courts accommodate inmates’ requests for changes of name.”
Mutawakkil had not submitted a formal request, the panel explained, because he mistakenly believed that Wisconsin courts won’t grant inmate name-change requests.
The court noted that Mutawakkil previously asked the circuit court to add his spiritual name to the judgment of conviction, and after an appeal, the circuit court did so. But his legal name, Green, is still attached to the prison policy that he is challenging.
“Mutawakkil should present his position to the state judiciary rather than asking federal judges to assume that state judges would be unduly hostile to religiously inspired requests,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. “The best way for Mutawakkil to find out what would happen, if he tried, is to try.”
However, the panel signaled the likely result if his name-change request is denied: It noted that Wisconsin’s policy does not create a “substantial burden” on Mutawakkil.