Wisconsin DOC's temporary ban on volunteers' visits is severely restricting inmates' access to sacraments.
A Wisconsin Department of Corrections policy is preventing the Catholic Church from carrying out its mission in prisons, claims a lawsuit filed last week.
The complaint filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court Friday says that for over a year, priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee “have been unable to meet in-person with inmates to provide spiritual direction, to conduct Masses, or to administer sacraments that cannot be administered virtually such as the Eucharist, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.”
The lawsuit asks the court to order the Department of Corrections to immediately allow members of the clergy to access state correctional institutions to provide religious services to inmates.
“The Wisconsin Department of Corrections was warned it is violating the law by prohibiting inmates from meeting in-person with volunteer priests and other religious ministers,” said Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), which brought the suit on behalf of the archdiocese. “It is simply not permitted to indefinitely suspend constitutional and statutory rights to the free exercise of religion.”
On March 13, 2020, the DOC announced that, “out of an abundance of caution,” in order to “minimize the risk of bringing COVID-19 into facilities,” it would temporarily suspend “all visits, including volunteer visits.”
“With this policy in place Wisconsin inmates have apparently been denied the ability to attend an in-person religious service led by a volunteer minister who shares their faith, or receive a sacrament administered by a volunteer minister such as communion, or even meet one-on-one with a volunteer minister for counseling,” WILL said in a press release.
WILL charged that the DOC policy “violates both state statute and the state constitutional guarantee to the free exercise of religion.” The law center pointed out that Wisconsin law provides in part that members of the clergy of all religious faiths shall have an opportunity, at least once each week, to conduct religious services within the state correctional institutions.
In an email to Aleteia, DOC spokesman John Beard said the department is “committed to expanding in-person visitation and volunteer programs at the earliest possible time and as soon as public health experts deem it safe to do so.”
“The Department is continuing its efforts to vaccinate persons in our care, which is a vital step toward resuming normal operations,” Beard said.