By Hemant Mehta
Originally published on October 14, 2014 at The Friendly Atheist
In February of 2007, after spending time in prison for drug possession, Barry A. Hazle Jr. was finally released on parole.
Parole came with a few strings attached, though. Hazle had to attend a 90-day drug treatment program which, in his case, involved the Twelve-Step program most commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. As we’ve discussed on this site before, several of those steps include references to God and submitting to a “higher power.”
Hazle — an atheist — wanted no part of that, so he asked to be reassigned to a secular treatment program. Even as he began attending the Twelve-Step classes, he objected to them. Three days after his parole officer received the appeal, Hazle “was called out of a program class and arrested for violating parole… He was sent back to prison for four months.”
It made absolutely no sense. That same year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals specifically ruled “that a parolee [couldn’t] be ordered to attend [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings as a condition of staying out of prison.”
A little over a year ago, there was some resolution to this issue from that same Court of Appeals:
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.
“Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle’s unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge’s finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote for the panel.
The court also demanded that a district judge in Sacramento reconsider whether state officials could “[require] parolees to attend treatment programs that emphasize God or a ‘higher power.’”
At the time, the amount of compensation Hazle would receive was in the hands of a different jury. And today, we learned what that amount was… and it’s staggering:
The California government and a nonprofit will pay a Shasta County atheist nearly $2 million for violating his civil rights when he was sent back to prison for taking issue with a religious drug-treatment program while on parole.
Barry Hazle Jr. and his attorney, John G. Heller, announced the settlement this morning at a press conference in San Francisco.
The money is meant to compensate for the violation of Hazle’s First Amendment religious rights, as well as to pay for the legal costs of the lengthy court battle. Heller noted that the prison where Hazle was sent also was “overcrowded and dangerous for both inmates and guards,” according to a statement by former Gov. Arnrold Schwarzenegger, so the suit included compensation for “physical and emotional symptoms and injuries,” as well.
The settlement of the six-year court case is made up of $1 million from the state and $925,000 from Westcare California Inc., the contractor that offered only a religious rehabilitation program for parolees such as Hazle.
It’s hard to overstate how important this victory is. It should’ve been obvious to state officials (and Hazle’s parole officer) that they couldn’t mandate anyone to go to a religious drug treatment program. It should’ve been obvious that they couldn’t punish someone for not wanting to attend that particular kind of program. Yet, they tried to coerce Hazle into going there, anyway.
He fought back, he was right, and he (finally) got fair compensation after everything the state put him through. More importantly, it means that no other prisoner or parolee will have to fight the same battle in the future.