Oct. 9, 2019 – A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has upheld a judgment in favor of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, which denied a prison inmate’s request to marry his former prison psychologist.
John Nigl is serving a 100-year sentence for intoxicated homicide by use of a vehicle. From 2013 to 2015, Dr. Sandra Johnston served as Nigl’s psychologist at the Waupun Correction Institution. On her last day there, Nigl kissed Dr. Johnson.
Thereafter, they communicated by mail, email, and phone. When Johnston returned to work for the Department of Corrections, she filed a “fraternization policy exception request,” seeking permission to have contact with Nigl. By then, they were engaged.
Johnston did not disclose the romantic relationship and the exception request was not processed, but she continued to have contact with Nigl, which was a violation of policy. When the department learned of the relationship, Johnston was terminated.
Prison staff later found letters and photos of Johnston in Nigl’s cell at a new facility. The correspondence, some of a sexual nature, was sent under an alias. Johnston also used an alias to communicate with Nigl by phone, and engaged in phone sex with him.
The department reported Johnston to the Psychology Examining Board, which suspended her license under regulations that prohibit psychologists from engaging in sexual conduct with clients within two years or rendering professional services.
In 2016, Nigl requested permission to marry Johnston. Marriage requests may be granted under certain conditions, and the warden has discretion to approve or not.
Ultimately, Nigl’s request was denied for various reasons, including the warden’s belief that the relationship was grounded in deceit in violation of prison rules. The department denied a number of Nigl’s grievance complaints, and denied visitation.
So Nigl and Johnson filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, arguing they had a fundamental constitutional right to marry that was being denied.
The district judge ruled that the denial was reasonably related to the goal of “ensuring a secure prison where staff and inmates respect the rules.” An appeal followed.
In Nigl et al. v. Litscher et al., No. 19-1618 (Oct. 7, 2019), a panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision, concluding denial of the marriage request was “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
“The defendant’s’ denial of the plaintiffs’ one-time marriage request in January 2017 was reasonably related to their legitimate penological interests in preserving the security of the prison, including compliance with and promoting respect for the prison’s rules governing inmate contacts, and rehabilitating Nigl,” wrote Judge Joel Flaum.