LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A federal judge has rejected a challenge brought by a group of Kentucky death row inmates to rules governing how and when pastors visit them at the Kentucky State Penitentiary.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell concluded that prison officials temporarily suspended pastoral visits at the maximum security prison in Eddyville for both security reasons and to bring the prison's regulations in line with Kentucky Department of Corrections regulations.
Russell also concluded that prison officials did not retaliate against inmates who complained about the change in visitation policy.
Five death row inmates sued the Department of Corrections in 2011 accusing the Corrections Department and prison of violating their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which governs religion in prisons.
The prison system changed its policy in 2010 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 policy has since been changed to allow more than one inmate to place a pastor on a visitor list, allowing them to visit with as many inmates as possible as long as they receive prior approval from the warden.
"Temporary suspension of clergy visits as improperly practiced was the only available alternative to KSP officials while they corrected their institutional policy and learned how to understand and apply the departmental policy," Russell wrote.
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.
"Most of us don't get visits from family regularly," death row inmate Randy Haight told The Associated Press in a letter earlier this year. "Our pastors are all that we get."
Russell also turned away a request from three inmates — six-time convicted killer Robert Foley, two-time convicted killer Roger Epperson and Vincent Stopher, condemned for killing a Jefferson County Sheriff's deputy — who sought to have the prison erect a sweat lodge to accommodate their Native American beliefs. Prison officials declined to build the sweat lodge, saying it would jeopardized the safety and security of inmates, guards and other inmates at the penitentiary because of some of the materials involved and the inability of guards to see what was happening inside.
"These concerns are magnified by the fact that inmates requesting the sweat lodge are death row inmates with violent criminal pasts who are subject to KSP highest security restrictions," Russell wrote.
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