Skip navigation

Over Three Decades Later, Turner v. Safley Still Controls Many Prisoner Lawsuits

by Matt Clarke

Nebraska officials have prevented a couple from marrying for seven years. Both are state prisoners, and they have filed a lawsuit to force the prison system to let them wed.

Oddly enough, the controlling case is the much-maligned, over-three-decades-old U.S. Supreme Court decision in Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987). Although the Turner court lowered the bar for prison officials to defend their policies against constitutional challenges, it also clearly upheld the fundamental right of prisoners to marry, which cannot be unilaterally denied by prison officials.

Niccole Wetherell is serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Her fiancé, Paul Gillpatrick, is serving 55 to 99 years for second-degree murder in a prison located about 50 miles from Wetherell’s. They met in 1998, prior to their incarcerations, and became engaged in 2012.

After Nebraska thwarted their attempts to marry, they filed a federal civil rights suit seeking to be wed via video conference, and to end the prison system’s policy that prohibits marriage between prisoners except in “special circumstances.”

In June 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Rossiter held that Wetherell and Gillpatrick had a fundamental right to marry. The state has appealed, and the appeal remained pending as of October 2019. See: Gillpatrick v. Frakes, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:18-cv-03011-RFR-CRZ.

Judge Rossiter cited as precedent a case with a quirky history that started at an infamous co-ed prison in Missouri and had been decided 32 years earlier – Turner v. Safley.

In 1982, the Renz Correctional Center held 138 women and 90 men. The women were primarily medium- and maximum-security prisoners – some convicted for killing an abusive boyfriend or husband – while the men were mostly minimum-security prisoners. Renz Superintendent William Turner had a strict “no touching” rule, and allowed male and female prisoners to interact for only about an hour a day. His desperate attempts to keep the women from becoming pregnant eventually included a ban on correspondence between prisoners who were not immediate family members, and a practice of denying requests by prisoners to marry other prisoners.

Two years earlier, Pearl Jane “P.J.” Watson, who had received a 23-year sentence for killing a former boyfriend, met Leonard Safley, who was serving a short prison term for bad checks. Soon thereafter they had a “noisy lovers quarrel” and Safley was transferred to another facility.

They tried to circumvent the correspondence prohibition by sending letters through third parties. Sometimes it worked. They asked to be married, but their request was denied. So, aided by attorney Floyd Finch, Safley filed a federal civil rights suit against Turner challenging the restrictive mail policy and asserting a right to marry.

During a hearing at which Safley, Watson and a Methodist minister were present, Finch received the judge’s permission to have the minister marry the couple. The lawsuit continued as a class action and eventually ended up before the Supreme Court.

The Court ruled that prisoners have a fundamental right to marry. It upheld Turner’s mail policy, however, and set the standard for evaluating prison regulations that infringe on prisoners’ constitutional rights, requiring that they be “reasonably related to legitimate penalogical objectives” – much lower than the “strict scrutiny” standard the lower courts had previously applied.

This lower standard, which includes a four-part test, has made it difficult for prisoners to prevail when challenging prison regulations. But the Supreme Court’s decision as to prisoners’ right to marry means the Nebraska DOC’s current policy is “facially unconstitutional under Turner v. Safley,” according to Judge Rossiter.

Watson and Safley’s marriage only lasted a few years, and the Renz Correctional Center was destroyed by flooding in 1993 and never reopened. Yet prisoners nationwide remain saddled with the Turner standard that makes it harder to prove civil rights violations. 

---

Sources: Newseum Institute, themarshallproject.org