Supreme Court Rules Restrictions on Prison Visitation Are Constitutional

By Adelman, Stanley E. | Corrections Today, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Supreme Court Rules Restrictions on Prison Visitation Are Constitutional


Adelman, Stanley E., Corrections Today


Prison visits can result in much good, but also much harm. On the one hand, visits with family, friends and loved ones promote inmates' good conduct and rehabilitation. On the other hand, prison visitation raises a host of security concerns, especially the potential for and actual smuggling of drugs and other contraband into prison facilities through visitation rooms.

Legally, it is generally thought that prison visits are protected, at least to some degree, by the U.S. Constitution. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has never definitively spelled out the extent to which inmates have a right under the First Amendment to receive visits, or the extent to which their visits may be prohibited or curtailed by prison officials in the interest of discipline, security and other penological concerns. (1) In the case of Overton v. Bazzetta, (2) which was decided at the close of its 2002-2003 term, the Supreme Court upheld visitation restrictions promulgated by the Michigan Department of Correction (MDOC). The court's decision should be of significant interest to federal, state and local correctional administrators.

In 1995, faced with rising prison populations and strained budgetary resources, MDOC revised its prison visitation policies and regulations. The revised regulations operate to limit the number of visits an individual inmate may receive in order to decrease the total number of prison visits that correctional staff must monitor. Other than clergy, attorneys and immediate family members, inmates can only designate 10 authorized visitors. Special limitations on visits from minors include prohibitions against visits from minors who are not closely related to the inmate, visits from children of inmates where the inmate's parental rights have been legally terminated and visits from children unaccompanied by an adult family member or legal guardian. Additional limitations include a prohibition on visits from former inmates who are not members of the inmate's immediate family, and a prohibition of all visits, except from attorneys and clergy, for a minimum of two years, for inmates who commit two or more substance abuse disciplinary infractions.

A group of Michigan inmates, their friends and family members filed a federal class action lawsuit, (3) alleging that MDOC's restrictions on visitation violated both the inmates' and their prospective visitors' constitutional rights of association under the First Amendment and the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled in the inmates' favor that the revised visitation regulations were unconstitutional and invalid, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. With the support and endorsement of 11 sister states, (4) the state of Michigan filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in the U.S. Supreme Court. (5) The Supreme Court granted certiorari and ultimately reversed the lower courts. The justices unanimously upheld the constitutionality of Michigan's visitation regulations, although (as discussed later) they differed among themselves somewhat in their constitutional analysis.

The First Amendment And Turner v. Safley

In a majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy and joined in by seven out of the nine justices (all except Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia), the court applied the now-familiar Turner v. Safley (6) test for determining the constitutionality of prison regulations. Under this test, regulations that limit or restrict the exercise of constitutional rights by inmates will be upheld so long as they "bear a rational relation to legitimate penological interests." (7) This test is very favorable to correctional agencies. As explained by the Supreme Court in Overton, courts "must accord substantial deference to the professional judgment of prison administrators," and "the burden, moreover, is not on the state to prove the validity of prison regulations but on the prisoner to disprove it. …

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Supreme Court Rules Restrictions on Prison Visitation Are Constitutional
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