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Wednesday, April 14th, 2021
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MADISON — Reports that the Wisconsin Department of Corrections has banned volunteer ministers from visiting inmates could lead to a lawsuit against Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has sent a letter to DOC warning that the policy, in response to COVID-19, violates state and federal statutory and constitutional law by “indefinitely denying inmates the basic freedom to exercise their religion.”

The policy apparently applies even when faith-based actives cannot be conducted virtually and contains no exceptions for visits by ministers who are vaccinated or can comply with health and safety protocols designed to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, according the Milwaukee-based civil rights law firm.

“We are asking the DOC to immediately reassess its policy and inform us by April 8, 2021 what steps it intends to take to bring itself into compliance with well-established law,” states WILL’s letter, noting that “the illegality of such a draconian policy should be self-evident.”

DOC’s policy barring members of the clergy from visiting prisoners goes back to the start of the pandemic. On March 13, 2020, the department announced “out of an abundance of caution,” in order to “minimize the risk of bringing COVID-19 (Coronavirus) into [its] facilities,” “[a]ll visits, including volunteer visits, are temporarily suspended at all Department of Corrections Institutions.”

Inmates apparently are unable to attend an in-person religious service led by a volunteer minister of the same faith, receive a sacrament such as communion, or meet one-on-one with a minister for counseling the letter notes.

DOC notes “several religious accommodations” may be available to prisoners. They can receive “self-study materials,” assistance from the on-duty chaplain (who will often not share an inmate’s faith), and/or “secular/non-denominational information” such as “uplifting stories.” Employees such as psychologists, social workers and teachers, however, may continue to enter corrections facilities following health and safety protocols.

Those in the faith community are locked out.

“DOC understands that this will greatly impact persons under our care and their families, and will be reviewing this decision on a daily basis,” the department wrote in the original policy statement. It’s been over a year, and the policy remains in place.

WILL’s warning letter notes the department’s assault on religious freedom comes during holy weeks for Christians and Jews.

While DOC bars in-person religious services at prisons, the Evers administration is proposing reforms to the criminal justice system, seeking to “ensure fair treatment for all within” the state’s jails and prisons.

“It is surprising, then, that one of the agencies in his control is utterly failing to meet not only basic state and federal constitutional and statutory requirements but fundamental, universally-recognized precepts premised upon the dignity of every human being,” WILL’ letters states.

“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.”

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