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Hawaii ACLU Files Suit on Behalf of Women Who Want to Marry Prisoners

On May 15, 2012, the ACLU of Hawaii filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) of unlawful discrimination by prohibiting four women from marrying Hawaii prisoners housed at a mainland facility.

According to the complaint, the women submitted multiple applications to wed their fiancés, who were incarcerated at the CCA-operated Saguaro Correctional Facility in Eloy, Arizona. Their applications were denied. State officials sent form letters to the prisoners, informing them that “[a]s a Ward of the State incarcerated in a correctional facility, you are incapable of providing the necessary emotional, financial and physical support that every marriage needs in order to succeed.”

The letters also stated, “We believe that a healthy relationship effort (marriage) established at this time while you are in prison and unable to work and communicate effectively face-to-face with your fiancée will be detrimental to any future re-integrative efforts.” Which is fairly ironic: First the DPS ships Hawaii prisoners to a distant mainland prison, then denies them the right to marry because they cannot “communicate effectively face-to-face” with their would-be spouse who remains in Hawaii.

The U.S. Supreme Court held 25 years ago that prison officials may not prohibit prisoners from marrying absent a legitimate penological reason. In that case, prisoners wanting to marry had to obtain permission from the warden, which was rarely granted. The Supreme Court found there is “a constitutionally protected marital relationship in the prison context,” and that “where the inmate wishes to marry a civilian, the decision to marry (apart from the logistics of the wedding ceremony) is a completely private one.” See: Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 96-98 (1987).

“We just want to get married because we love each other. We’ve been trying for years. We gave up on the system, but we never gave up on each other,” said Lenora Santos, one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit. The other plaintiffs include Junell Faith Aliviado, Jamiquia Glass and Margaret Amina.

The ACLU had previously communicated with DPS officials regarding denials of marriage applications, and DPS agreed to make changes. The department issued a revised policy on marriage applications in June 2011 that stated prisoners’ right to marry could be restricted when “the proposed marriage presents a threat to the security or the good government of the institution or to the protection of the public.” However, prison officials reportedly continued to deny marriage applications using the same form letter, plus other contrived justifications for the denials.

“The Constitution prohibits government officials from imposing their morals and judgment on others,” said ACLU senior staff attorney Daniel Gluck. “DPS’s practices are not only illegal – they hinder prisoners from developing committed relationships that can help their rehabilitation and improve their chances of being productive when they complete their sentences and re-enter society.”

The ACLU is seeking a preliminary injunction to “compel Defendants to cease interfering with Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry ...,” because the “Defendants’ ongoing and persistent violations of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights have caused, and continue to cause, irreparable injury to Plaintiffs.”

The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, attorney fees and costs, and monetary damages for emotional distress, psychological harm, humiliation, and pain and suffering. See: Santos v. Kimoto, U.S.D.C. (D. Hawaii), Case No. 1:12-cv-00259-SOM-BMK.

Additional sources: ACLU of Hawaii press release, Star Advertiser

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Related legal case

Santos v. Kimoto