Group threatens lawsuit because ministers are kept from visiting prisons over COVID concerns

MADISON – A conservative legal group told the head of the state prison system Thursday that his agency risked a lawsuit if it did not alter its COVID-19 policies and allow ministers to visit prisoners in person.

In a letter, the leaders of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty told Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr he needed to provide Catholic inmates the opportunity to make confessions to priests in person as Easter approaches. Members of other denominations deserve similar opportunities to meet with faith leaders, they argued.

The Department of Corrections in March 2020 barred visits from clergy to limit the spread of the coronavirus and that ban remains in place, according to the letter from WILL President Rick Esenberg and Deputy Counsel Anthony LoCoco.

“While the illegality of such a draconian policy should be self-evident, we are sending this letter to confirm that the DOC is indeed violating state and federal statutory and constitutional law by indefinitely denying inmates the basic freedom to exercise their religion,” they wrote.

They argued the policy is particularly unjust because lawyers, social workers and psychologists are allowed to meet with inmates in person.

While prisoners may be able to meet with their institutions’ chaplain, they often have a different faith than those chaplains, they wrote.

The pair told Carr that his department needs to change its policies “to avoid legal action.” WILL has brought frequent lawsuits over religious liberty and other issues in recent years and letters such as Thursday’s are often a precursor to litigation.

John Beard, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, did not immediately say Thursday whether the agency would make changes to its policy on ministers.

Esenberg and LoCoco asked Carr to respond to them by Wednesday.

“In sum, the DOC’s policy is illegal and the DOC must act now to restore the rights of Wisconsin’s inmates to freely exercise their religion. One year of violations is long enough,” they wrote.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.