Inmates sue over visit restrictions

By Brett Barrouquere
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A group of death row inmates in Kentucky have sued the state prison system, claiming that pastors have been illegally restricted from visiting them.

The prison system changed its policy about a year ago, requiring inmates to place pastors on one of three slots on an inmate’s visitation list to meet with them one-on-one.

Previously, pastors had greater flexibility to visit the inmates one-on-one.

The prisoners, who filed the suit early this month in federal court, want U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell to force the Kentucky Department of Corrections to allow one-on-one pastoral visits with three days notice from the pastor.

Inmates viewed the change as a privilege snatched away by the Department of Corrections.

The pastoral visits take on a special importance to prisoners, particularly for death row inmates who are isolated from regular visitors. Eddyville, home to the state’s 34 death row inmates, is 180 miles from Louisville, 280 miles from Northern Kentucky and 360 miles from Pikeville in eastern Kentucky.

The inmates noted that Robert Foley, condemned to death for killing six people in eastern Kentucky, was allowed a pastoral visit while fellow death row prisoner Randy Haight was not. Haight was sentenced to death for the 1985 slayings of Patricia Vance and David Omer in central Kentucky.

“I am still searching for the meaning or the reason behind the denying of a pastoral visit?” inmate Randy Haight wrote Kentucky State Penitentiary Warden Phil Parker on July 13, 2010. The suit seeks class-action status to cover the roughly 850 inmates at the penitentiary.

The inmates also seek to merge their lawsuit with similar litigation brought by death row inmate Ralph Baze, who sued in March.

In July 2010, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb said Phil Parker, the warden at the penitentiary, was simply enforcing a policy that had been on the books, but not strictly observed.

The inmates filed a series of internal grievances, all questioning the policy’s validity under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits burdens on prisoners to worship as they please.

Prison officials rejected each grievance — a prerequisite for the inmates filing suit.

“Most of us don’t get visits from family regularly,” Haight told The Associated Press in a July 2010 interview. “Our pastors are all that we get.”

“Who in the world would want to take one of the best things, one of the most fruitful things, away from us?” Haight asked. “It just don’t make no sense.”