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Wyoming Corrections: Accommodating faith in prison challenging, essential

in Criminal justice/Government spending/News
The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular,.
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Adequately and safely meeting the constitutionally guaranteed religious rights of the state’s inmates can be challenging, according to a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

“Inmates arguably have more religious protections than (the average citizen) to be frank,” WDOC Compliance Manager C.J. Young said. “This is probably one of the tougher areas for the justice system around the country.”

In addition to First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, inmates are also covered by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“If an inmate has a sincerely held belief, (RLUIPA)  shifts the burden on to (WDOC) to justify why we can’t accommodate that,” Young explained. “We have to accommodate that belief unless it’s completely outrageous like requesting to carry around an axe.”

The WDOC is not only charged with accommodating the inmate’s beliefs, but accommodating them in the least restrictive manner possible, he said.

“An inmate requested to wear a certain type of religious item he wouldn’t normally be allowed to wear,” Young said. “We did some research with nearby facilities, and we found there hadn’t really been any problems. So we allowed it, but with the minor exception he could only wear the item in the chapel.”

Items of belief

Religious items in the correctional system fall into two categories: personal property, which is owned by the inmates, and group property, which is owned by WDOC.

“When it comes to personal property, we have a matrix of religious property that inmates can possess,” Young said. “That list can vary depending on the facility. At the Wyoming Honor Farm, inmates work with tools daily, so having a metal crucifix might not be a big deal, but in maximum security at the State Penitentiary … we’re probably not going to give (the inmate) metal, so we might find a plastic or paper crucifix they can wear.”

Inmates can acquire personal religious items through the WDOC commissary or through WDOC-approved donations from religious groups.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook provided to the public in January by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines, the WDOC spent about $2,600 in 2018 with Al Hannah, an Islamic clothing provider. In 2017, the WDOC spent about $2,200 with same company, and in 2016, the agency spent about $2,400 with Al Hannah.

WDOC Public Information Officer Mark Horan said the purchases were to stock the commissary with “halal shampoo, lotion and soap products,” products prepared according to Muslim practices.Because the commissary is operated as an enterprise fund, a self-supporting fund that provides goods or services to the public for a fee, Young said the personal items purchased through it are not paid for with tax dollars.

“What the (commissary) makes, they then use to purchase items to sell to inmates,” he said. 

The only commissary expense that is funded through the WDOC general fund is staff salaries, Young added.

The store can mark up the price of some items to turn a profit, but Horan said religious items cannot be marked up.

Group items, on the other hand, are not owned by the prisoners, nor can they be purchased by the prisoners.

Group items are available to inmates at predetermined times, such as religious services, and typically, under the supervision of a chaplain.

“Take Asatru (a Norse-pantheon religion) for instance, they can have a drinking horn in group property,” Young explained. “But, they can’t have that property in their cells.”

Religious Privileges

The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular, Young said.

“The department doesn’t tell anybody that you can’t believe in a god or religious practice,” he said. “What we do is recognize certain faith groups that are prevalent enough and don’t pose any risks that we allow them to have privileges inside our facilities.”

Islam, Wicca, Satanism, Judaism and Asatru are among the recognized religions, and recently, Young said the WDOC added humanitarianism to the list, which is regularly reviewed and updated.

“We try to be flexible,” he said. “When inmates come in, if there’s a new practice or a new faith group, we try to give everything a fair shot.”

If an inmate wants the WDOC to recognize a new belief system or religious practice, Young said they can follow a paperwork process lining out their request. The WDOC reviews the form and either grants or denies the request.

A denial can be appealed, Young said.

‘An opportunity to reset’

Accommodating faiths and belief systems can be difficult in a rural state with limited religious support networks, Young said.

“The only rabbis in Wyoming are in Jackson and Cheyenne, and we don’t have a facility in either of those,” he explained. “When it comes to some of the earth-based religions like Asatru or Wicca, we’re looking at trying to find someone in Denver or on the East Coast that’s any type of professional in their field.”

Because of this, WDOC relies heavily on religious volunteers, who can offer services and guidance to inmates.

Beyond constitutional requirements, access to religion is an important part of the prison system, he said.

“The public and even us in corrections, we can have a tendency to be jaded,” Young said. “There is an old joke that God lives in maximum security prisons, or at least, that’s where everyone finds him. Or, ‘You should thought about being religious before you committed the crime.’”

On the path to reconciliation and rehabilitation, however, faith is one of the few tools available to inmates.

“When you’re in prison, there’s only three things you get: food, a very small amount of property, and religion,” Young said. “For many, faith is opportunity to reset their lives or mindsets.”

To learn more about volunteering for WDOC religious programming or donating religious items to inmate’s religious groups, call the WDOC at 307-777-7208.

Governor signs public records, animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/Education/Energy/News/Transparency
Wyoming Legislature bills signed by Governor Gordon
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By Cowboy State Daily

Bills creating a felony crime of animal abuse and setting a deadline for the production of public records were among a group signed into law on Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

HB 235, one of the last bills to be approved by the Legislature in the closing hours of its general session, makes it a felony for a person to commit aggravated cruelty to animals resulting in the death or euthanasia of an animal or to abuse an animal with an intent to kill it.

The law takes effect July 1. Currently, a person convicted of animal abuse can only be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The public records law, SF 57, sets a 30-day deadline for the release of public documents. It also authorizes the hiring of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Under existing law, there was no time limit for government agencies to release public documents.

Other bills signed into law Friday included:

  • SF 159, designed to encourage utilities to sell old coal-fired electric plants rather than retire them;
  • HB 103, requiring doctors who perform abortions to report those procedures to the state Office of Vital Records and requiring the the data be compiled into a public report;
  • SF 122, creating the “Wyoming Works Program,” which will provide grants for students attending technical programs at community colleges, and 
  • HB 99, creating a state “Public Lands Day.”

Gordon has until late March to sign bills into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Wyoming’s 65th Legislature: General Session Review

in Agriculture/Criminal justice/Education/Health care/News/Taxes
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It’s all over for this year. Check out our bitesized rundown of what passed and what failed in the 65th Wyoming Legislature’s General Session. Stay tuned this weekend for more analysis on the session highs and lows with our Robert Geha.

Thanks for watching and be sure to follow Cowboy State Daily for our expanded statewide coverage of Wyoming news coming to your feed in the days ahead.

In Brief: Felony penalty restored to animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/News
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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A last-minute compromise in Wyoming’s Legislature this week restored a felony penalty to the state’s animal cruelty laws.

HB 235, as it goes to the governor’s desk, would make it a felony to abuse an animal with the intent of killing it or to engage in “aggravated cruelty” that results in an animal’s death. The bill had originally made repeated offenses of the state’s animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. However, the Senate removed all the language regarding the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes.

A compromise was reached late on Wednesday, the Legislature’s final day of its general session, restoring the felony penalty of up to two years in prison.

In Brief: Animal cruelty compromise reached, no felony for repeat offenders

in Criminal justice/News
Alt = Wyoming animal cruelty bill reaches compromise
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By Cowboy State Daily

A compromise was reached Wednesday on a bill that was originally intended to create a felony penalty for animal cruelty. However, the bill no longer contains any language regarding the enhanced penalty for repeat offenders of animal cruelty laws.

HB 235 originally would have made anyone convicted of animal abuse more than once guilty of a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all of the language pertaining to the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes to its bills.

The compromise approved by the House on Wednesday still leaves the felony language out of the bill. However, as it stands, the bill would allow a judge to bar a person from seeing or caring for a pet if that person had been convicted in a domestic abuse case.

If the Senate approves the changes, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature.

In Brief: House rejects significant changes to animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/News
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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By Cowboy State Daily

Significant Senate changes to a bill originally designed to create a felony crime of animal cruelty were rejected Monday by representatives.

Members of the House on Monday voted not to adopt the Senate changes to HB 235 and instead to create a “joint conference committee” to meet with senators to address the differences in the two versions of the bill.

As approved by the House, the bill would have made repeated violations of animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all language pertaining to the felony crime, leaving intact only a section that would let judges bar people from having contact with pets if they are convicted of a domestic abuse charge.

The three-member joint conference committees from both the House and Senate will be charged with reaching a compromise on the bill. If no compromise can be reached, the bill will die.

Income tax, party switching dead, lodging tax alive

in Criminal justice/News/Taxes
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By Cowboy State Daily

The last of three bills that would have put restrictions on when voters can change party affiliations was among a number to die this week as the Legislature neared the end of its general session.

Legislators looking to wrap up their general session by Wednesday put in long hour this week finishing their work on a number of bills, eliminating several controversial measures.

HB 106 was the last of three bills that would have set time limits for people to change party affiliation. It would have set a deadline of May 1 for such changes. It was defeated in a 14-11 vote in its first Senate review.

Another bill killed would have imposed an income tax on large retail companies headquartered outside of Wyoming. HB 220 died without getting a review in a Senate committee.

Moving ahead, however, was a bill that would set a statewide lodging tax of 5 percent. HB 66 is set for a final vote in the Senate on Monday.

Approved with significant changes by the Senate was a bill originally designed to create a felony crime for animal abuse. HB 235 was amended to remove all language about the felony crime.

Animal abuse measure amended to remove felony language

in Criminal justice/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have made it a felony to repeatedly abuse animals is heading for a Senate review, but without the felony penalty language.

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved HB 235, but removed all language strengthening the penalty for animal abuse.

As originally worded, anyone convicted more than once on a charge of cruelty to animals could have been charged with a felony and sentenced to up to two years in prison. Currently, animal abuse is a misdemeanor.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, proposed the amendment stripping the felony language out of the bill. She said as written, the language did not specifically define what an animal is and she feared it would not be approved by the Senate.

Steinmetz said if enforced, existing laws would be sufficient to address the problem of animal cruelty.

“There are a lot of penalties and statutes on the books that deal with that,” she said. “I think that they’re probably not being enforced as much as folks would like to see.”

The bill still contains language that would let a judge bar a person convicted in a domestic abuse case from owning or caring for an animal.

The bill is on the list of measures to be considered in the Senate’s “Committee of the Whole.”

Senator predicts effort to repeal death penalty will continue

in Criminal justice/News
Wyoming death penalty repeal Senator Brian Boner
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By Cowboy State Daily

Efforts to repeal Wyoming’s death penalty will probably continue despite the Legislature’s decision this week to kill a bill that would have eliminated the penalty, according to a Douglas legislator.

HB 145 would have made life without parole the harshest sentence that could be handed down in criminal cases. The bill was approved by Wyoming’s House, but defeated by the Senate in an 18-12 vote.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said he believes the repeal effort will continue and gain more support in the future.

“As time goes on, I’m sure that we will continue to gain ground and eventually the death penalty will be repealed,” he said.

Supports of the bill had argued that the death penalty is too expensive for the state, given the number of appeals that generally accompany such cases.

Boner attributed the death of the measure this year to legislators who may remember when the death penalty was an effective deterrent to violent crime.

“Especially some of our older members probably remember when the death penalty was effective, when we did use it,” he said. “But that’s no longer the case.”

In Brief: Death penalty repeal killed in first Senate review

in Criminal justice/News
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have repealed Wyoming’s death penalty failed to pass its first review by the full Senate on Thursday.

HB 145 would have made life without the possibility of parole the harshest penalty that could be handed down in a Wyoming criminal case. It died in the Senate on a vote of 12-18 in its review in “Committee of the Whole,” the first reading of a bill by the full body.

Proponents of the bill argued that the death penalty is too expensive for the state, given the large number of appeals usually surrounding such cases and the cost of housing death row inmates.

The bill cleared the House last week on a vote of 36-21 and won unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee before being rejected on the Senate floor.

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