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7th Circuit: Prisoner Cannot Marry His Former Prison Psychologist

Lover putting wedding ring on prisoner hand
By Laura Temme, Esq. on October 11, 2019 1:33 PM

In a tale of secret engagements and ignoring professional rules, a recent decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals put one Wisconsin inmate's marriage plans on hold. John Nigl, who has been incarcerated since 2001 on a 100-year sentence for intoxicated homicide, requested permission to marry his former prison psychologist, Dr. Sandra Johnston. Unsurprisingly, prison officials (and the courts) were not inclined to approve the marriage.

The Line Gets Crossed

Nigl met Johnston in 2013 when Johnston was employed at Waupun Correction Institution as a prison psychologist. For nearly two years, Johnston provided psychological services to inmates at the facility, including Nigl. On Johnston's last day of work at Waupun, in 2015, Nigl kissed her. And despite both prison and professional rules forbidding it, the two began a romantic relationship via emails, phone calls, and letters.

The Lies Pile Up

Johnston eventually returned to her work at Waupun, but even though she filed a "fraternization policy exception request" to allow contact with Nigl she did not disclose the nature of her relationship with him. She never told her supervisor that not only was she in a relationship with Nigl, but they were also engaged. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections learned of the relationship in October 2015 and terminated Johnston. In subsequent visitation requests, Johnston still referred to Nigl as a "friend." But, the warden wasn't buying it.

The Truth Comes Out

In the investigations that followed, the Department of Corrections uncovered letters, cards, and photos from Johnston in Nigl's cell. As it turned out, Johnston had been sending letters and nude photos under an alias - and had used a fake name to call the prison and engage in phone sex with Nigl.

When prison officials denied Nigl's request to marry Johnston, the two filed suit under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging the violation of their fundamental right to marry.

However, Wisconsin law prohibits psychologists from engaging in romantic or sexual contact with a current client or anyone to whom they have provided professional services within the last two years. Moreover, the pattern of deceit the two engaged in led the 7th Circuit to find that prison officials were within their rights to deny the marriage.

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