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Seventh Circuit Reverses Denial of Former Prison Guard’s Marriage to Prisoner

Rebecca Riker, a kitchen supervisor at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana, became romantically involved with prisoner Paul Vest, who also worked in the kitchen. When their relationship was exposed, Riker resigned her position and the couple made plans to marry. Prison officials denied their request, Riker filed suit and the state prevailed on a summary judgment motion. Riker appealed, claiming that her right to marry had been unreasonably restricted. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, reversing and remanding the case on August 14, 2015.

Although the facts in this suit raise issues of concern to prisoners’ rights advocates who decry abusive or coercive sexual relationships between prisoners and guards, which are against the law in all states, the only issue before the appellate court was the right of a former guard to marry a prisoner she had met while supervising him.

The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by noting that “‘federal courts must take cognizance of the valid constitutional claims of prison inmates. Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution,’” quoting Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). The Court of Appeals added, “The Constitution protects a prisoner’s fundamental right to marry; individuals do not lose this constitutional protection simply because they are imprisoned.”

“Although Ms. Riker is not a prisoner, ‘so far as challenges to prison regulations as infringing constitutional rights are concerned, the standard is the same whether the rights of prisoners or of nonprisoners are at stake,’” the Court wrote. “In determining a regulation’s reasonableness, we must balance the constitutional right asserted against the legitimate penological goals of the prison.”

The appellate court examined Riker’s claims under Turner’s four-part test for reviewing prison regulations: “(1) whether a valid, rational connection exists between the regulation and a legitimate government interest behind the rule; (2) whether there are alternative means of exercising the right in question; (3) what impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right would have on guards, other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources; and (4) what easy alternatives exist to the regulation....”

In its decision reversing the district court, the Seventh Circuit held that prison officials “cannot avoid court scrutiny by reflexive, rote assertions.” The Court of Appeals was not swayed by arguments relying upon prison policies or security concerns, since Riker was only seeking a one-time visit to the facility to perform the marriage ceremony in the prison chapel. The Court also emphasized that prison officials had failed to present evidence to substantiate the over-restrictive policy that precluded Riker from being wed. See: Riker v. Lemmon, 798 F.3d 546 (7th Cir. 2015).

Following remand, a settlement was finalized in April 2016 in which the DOC agreed to allow Riker to visit the Wabash Valley prison for the purpose of marrying Vest. Further, the DOC agreed to pay $58,107.50 for Riker’s attorney fees and costs. 

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Related legal case

Riker v. Lemmon