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Clergy Who Advocate for Prisoners Barred from Prisons and Jails

As described in this month’s cover story, prison and jail chaplains accused of sexual misconduct often resign, retire, are fired or are sometimes prosecuted. In other cases, though, well-meaning clergy members who seek to help prisoners have been locked out of jails and prisons by staff who don’t appreciate their advocacy efforts.

Such was the case with Gail Hanson, a volunteer chaplain for eight years at the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville, Texas. Hanson, 61, complained about conditions at the facility for women prisoners – such as poor food, cold temperatures and lengthy pre-trial detention. In response, instead of addressing those issues, in March 2008 Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio prohibited the chaplain from visiting the jail.

Chief Deputy Gus Reyna, Jr. later told a local newspaper that Hanson’s complaints on behalf of prisoners might “even rise to the level of threatened security breach,” stating, “While
spiritual guidance may be helpful, personal involvement and advocacy for inmates is not within the acceptable limits of spiritual guidance and counseling, and may foment unnecessary and counter-productive unrest among the jail population.”

Some chaplains, however, including Hanson, realize that it is insufficient to address prisoners’ spiritual needs if their physical needs remain unmet. For example, Hanson would complain when women prisoners did not have sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins and underwear, or had to sleep on the floor; she helped them communicate with their families and even took one prisoner into her home who needed a place to stay as a condition of her release.

Some would describe Hanson’s actions as living her faith; Cameron County jail officials deemed her advocacy efforts a potential security problem.

“Preventing someone from volunteering their time to help rehabilitate prisoners because she was critical of the county is outrageous,” said Scott Medlock, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Program of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP). “Mrs. Hanson should be commended for her dedication to ministering to the women held in the jail, not punished for speaking the truth about what she saw behind prison bars.”

With representation by the TCRP, attorney Edward A. Stapleton and the law firm of King and Spaulding, Hanson sued Cameron County on First Amendment grounds, seeking to overturn the sheriff’s ban that prevented her from ministering to prisoners. She is not seeking monetary damages.

“This is an important test case,” said Medlock, “both because of its free-speech implications and also because not many like this have been litigated. And that is because most sheriffs are not abusing their power the way Sheriff Lucio is. This case tests the power of a sheriff to retaliate against those who speak out.”

Hanson’s lawsuit, filed in state court and later removed to federal court, is still pending. On January 1, 2010, the district court denied the county’s motion to dismiss her complaint. See: Hanson v. Lucio, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00202.

In a similar incident in 2006, volunteer chaplain Lance Voorhees was barred from the Taylor County, Texas jail after he complained about mistreatment of prisoners. He filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to no avail. According to Adam Munoz, the Commission’s executive director, sheriffs can ban volunteer chaplains at their discretion.

In Iowa, the Rev. Val Peter, a former executive director of Boys’ Town (formerly Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home), was barred from visiting the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. His offense? While visiting a prisoner in October 2009, the 75-year-old priest took written notes during the meeting, as was his usual practice. As he was leaving a prison guard demanded that he surrender the notes because he had written down another guard’s name; instead, Peter tore off the note with the name, put it in his mouth and ate it – an act that he described as “a prophetic gesture,” citing Ezekiel 3.

His visitation privileges were suspended for a year, a decision that was upheld by prison officials. “Keep in mind that visiting is a privilege, and it can be terminated for good cause at any time,” remarked Iowa Dept. of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta.

In July 2010, the Rev. A.J. Guyton, 73, a Baptist pastor, was banned from the Peoria County Jail in Illinois. Sheriff Mike McCoy confirmed that Guyton was not welcome at the facility, at least on a temporary basis, after the pastor made uncomplimentary remarks about guards during a sermon and encouraged prisoners to write petitions expressing their concerns. Guyton had ministered at the jail for more than 25 years.

“We felt some of the reverend’s comments were not religious in orientation or nature and do not follow his charge, which is to preach the gospel and help inmates with their religion,” said Sheriff McCoy.

Rev. William B. Pickard, 63, a Catholic priest, has been barred from visiting prisoner Nicholas Pinto, who was the victim of a vicious assault by another prisoner at the Lackawanna County Prison in Pennsylvania in August 2010. Four months earlier Pickard, an advocate for prisoners at the facility, had informed members of the prison board that Pinto previously had been assaulted and was “a likely target” for future attacks.

Rev. Pickard was not allowed to visit Pinto after he was hospitalized in critical condition, because guards claimed he had pushed them. Pickard said he merely brushed by them. “It would be better if he didn’t come” to visit prisoners, said Warden Janine Donate. The assault on Pinto, which occurred in the jail’s protective custody unit, resulted in attempted murder charges against another prisoner.

Lastly, the Associated Press reported on July 21, 2010 that when part-time pastor Gerald Otahal arrived at the Kentucky State Penitentiary to pray with a prisoner on death row, he was turned away. Kentucky prison officials had decided to strictly adhere to a policy that limits visits by members of the clergy.

Referring to the prisoner he ministered to, Otahal said, “He has no outlet now. He has no one to pray with. No one to talk to him about the hereafter. Good grief. I’m just astounded they took this away.”

The Kentucky Department of Corrections moved to enforce the policy after a pastor wanted to minister to more than one death row prisoner. Religious advisors now have to be one of three people on a prisoner’s visitation list before they are allowed to visit.

“You have a right over their life,” Otahal said of prison authorities. “You don’t have a right over their soul.” He also noted that pastors should be welcomed in state prisons, so they can “talk to [prisoners] about how to live a better life.”

Apparently, though, when it comes to allowing members of the clergy to visit with and minister to prisoners, there is no higher power than prison and jail officials.

Sources: Texas Observer,,,, Brownsville Herald,,, Associated Press,,

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Related legal case

Hanson v. Lucio