U.S. Eighth Circuit - The FindLaw 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Engaged Nebraska Inmates Suing for Right to Marry: ACLU Lawsuit

The ACLU of Nebraska filed a lawsuit against Nebraska prison officials for preventing two engaged inmates from getting married.

The lawsuit, against the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Director Michael Kenney, and two wardens, was filed on behalf of inmates Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell, who have been engaged for more than two years.

The merits of their "right to marry" case will turn on whether the restrictions are related to a legitimate penological interest and the prison's willingness to use technology. Ah, love in the digital age.

Prisoners' Right to Marry

In a landmark case from the Eighth Circuit, Tuner v. Safley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have a constitutional right to marry. Citing Zablocki v. Redhail, the Court upheld the Eighth Circuit's ruling which struck down the Missouri Department of Corrections' regulation as unconstitutional.

Though recognizing that prisoners have a constitutionally protected right to marry, the Court acknowledged that inmate marriages can be subject to "substantial restrictions" as a result of incarceration.

Prison regulations that impinge on an inmate's constitutional rights must be "reasonably related" to legitimate penological interests, including legitimate security concerns, the Court ruled.

According to the AELE Law Enforcement Legal Center, a court will look at a number of factors to determine whether a regulation is reasonable, including:

  • whether alternative means of exercising the asserted constitutional right are available to inmates (though the alternatives are viewed with a measure of judicial deference to the expertise of correctional officials);
  • to what extent accommodation of the asserted right would impact prison staff, inmates' liberty, and the allocation of limited prison resources; and
  • whether the regulation represents an "exaggerated response" to prison concerns.

ACLU Nebraska Prison Marriage Lawsuit

According to the lawsuit, the department is unwilling to place the couple in the same room or to use modern technology to conduct a wedding ceremony. They have each filled out the appropriate marriage intention forms and submitted them to the religious coordinator at their respective facilities.

But prison officials state the request denial is for "legal and security" reasons. The prison system has a policy that allows for space and time for in-prison marriage ceremonies, but the policy bars the transportation of inmates from one institution to another for such ceremonies, The Omaha World Herald reports.

But as the ACLU points out, when you add technology into the equation, the reasonableness of the penological justification falls flat because there's no transportation involved. Of course, technology may raise other potential justifications such as limited prison resources.

"The State has flexibility in its options. We are not demanding that it change its security requirements. All we are asking is that the State accommodate this couple's legal desire to marry," said attorney Michael Gooch of Omaha.

Considering Skype weddings are a thing, it will be interesting to see how this case plays out and also how technology fleshes out the constitutional right of prisoners to enter into wedded bliss.

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