Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Texas Chaplain Who Complained of Jail Conditions Reinstated, Suit Settled

In January 2011, Gail Hanson was reinstated as a volunteer chaplain at the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville, Texas. She had been banned from the facility after she publicly criticized conditions at the jail, and her reinstatement was part of a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit against the county.

Hanson was a volunteer chaplain who visited with and ministered to female prisoners at the jail for 8 years before she spoke at a political candidate forum on criminal justice issues in February 2008. At the forum she criticized jail conditions, noting that female prisoners were denied sanitary napkins and indigent hygiene packages, held for long periods – up to several years – before going to trial, forced to sleep on the floor due to overcrowding, given food containing gnats and hair, denied proper medical care, and improperly housed in maximum-security cells.

Several days later, Hanson was surrounded by four male guards when she entered the jail, taken to a room where she and her Bible were searched, then escorted out of the facility.
Her volunteer chaplain credentials were revoked and she was told not to set foot on jail property. That included any visits with prisoners. [See: PLN, Sept. 2010, p.10].

Hanson filed a civil rights complaint against Cameron County and Sheriff Omar Lucio in state court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which was removed to federal court. The suit alleged violations of Hanson’s free speech rights under the First Amendment and Article I, Sections 8 and 27 of the Texas Constitution, and sought reinstatement at the jail but no monetary damages.

A settlement was reached that allowed Hanson to be accredited again as a volunteer chaplain and engage in religious activities and counseling with jail prisoners. The settlement agreement specifically prohibits her from conveying messages between prisoners. It also requires her to report any unconstitutional or otherwise illegal conditions she observes to the jail’s administration, and to allow them an undefined “reasonable” amount of time, dependent on the nature of the perceived condition or violation, to remedy the problem before she reports it to the media or at a public meeting. Hanson expressly acknowledged that this “temporarily limits her state and federal free speech rights.”

“I’m so glad that I’ll be able to put this lawsuit behind me and get back to the work that really matters – providing support and guidance to the women in jail who need it,” said Hanson. “I’m really looking forward to praying again with these women.”

The settlement also requires the jail to provide written copies of its chaplaincy policies to each volunteer chaplain, and to pay Hanson $25,000 in attorney fees. Hanson was represented pro bono by attorneys Samuel D. Davis, Thomas M. Gutting, David A. Grenardo and C. Brannon Robertson of the Houston, Texas law firm of King & Spalding; Brownsville attorney Ed Stapleton; and attorneys Scott Medlock, James C. Harrington and Corinna Spencer-Scheurich of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“This is a significant victory for free speech rights,” said Medlock. “Ms. Hanson’s compassion for prisoners is so impressive, and it’s great that she’ll be able to return to this important work.” See: Hanson v. Lucio, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00202.

Additional source: TCRP press release

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Hanson v. Lucio