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Seventh Circuit Upholds Denial of Wisconsin Prisoner’s Request to Marry Psychologist

by Ed Lyon

John Nigl began his 100-year prison stretch in 2001 at Waupun Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. From April of 2013 until January of 2015, Nigl received psychological counseling from Dr. Sandra Johnston. Their sessions ceased when Johnston left her employment. The two shared a kiss when Johnston left.

Nigl’s brother obtained Johnston’s address, and Nigl contacted her by mail. She responded favorably so the two began exchanging letters and telephone calls. After a four-month period, they became engaged in April of 2015.

Johnston requested visitation approval to see Nigl several times. They were denied because she had not been 12 months outside her prison employment. She set up a phone account under an alias name and had phone sex with Nigl. She returned to work as a prison psychologist in July of 2015. She disclosed her friendship with Nigl in a “fraternization policy exception request,” but her supervisor never processed it. The two continued their contact anyway and requested permission to marry in 2016.

Permission was denied as it was discovered how many rules and policies the two had broken in the course of their relationship. In addition, the state licensing board suspended Johnston’s license for 12 months because she had entered into a relationship with a patient prior to the expiration of the two-year period since their last professional visit. The pair jointly filed a civil rights suit in federal court claiming their 14th Amendment right to marry had been denied by prison officials.

The lower court granted summary judgment to prison officials. It reasoned the denial of permission for the couple to marry was “related to legitimate penological interests” because the pair “had engaged in a pattern of rule-breaking and deception in furtherance of their relationship leading up to the date of the marriage request.”

In October, the circuit court panel affirmed the lower court’s judgment in all aspects. While affirming a prisoner’s right to marry decreed in Turner v. Safely, 482 U.S. 78, 95 (1987), the panel cited provisions regarding that right in that case and how they related to Nigl and Johnston’s situation. For example, it recognized the warden’s concern that Johnston may have been using her official position over Nigl to exploit him in finding the lower court’s summary judgment grant to be well-founded. It further noted that the prison administrators maintained the pair could again apply for permission to marry at a later date. See: Nigl v. Litscher, 940 F.3d 329(7th Cir 2019). 


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Related legal case

Nigl v. Litscher