Justices don’t focus on association rights in inmate-visitation case

Thursday, June 19, 2003

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court gave only cursory attention to the First Amendment-related right of association in its decision this week upholding restrictive visitation policies imposed on Michigan prisoners.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the unanimous court in the June 16 decision Overton v. Bazzetta, acknowledged that “the Constitution protects certain kinds of highly personal relationships.”

But a prison case, he quickly added, “is not an appropriate case for further elaboration of these matters. The very object of imprisonment is confinement. … And, as our cases have established, freedom of association is among the rights least compatible with incarceration.” He also said the right to intimate associations is not “altogether terminated” by imprisonment.

With that, the Court proceeded to examine the regulations under a lenient standard of whether they “bear a rational relation to legitimate penological interests.” The Court found that they did.

The Michigan rules, aimed at reducing drug abuse and other crimes inside the prisons, limit visits by minors and former prisoners, and ban visits outright for inmates who violate substance-abuse rules — except for visits from lawyers and clergy.

A group of inmates sued the state corrections director, claiming the rules violate
their First Amendment associational rights as well as Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the inmates, asserting that instead of “crafting policies that would legitimately meet the very real need to maintain order in prisons, the department has implemented a series of haphazard policies that violated these rights and did real harm to inmates in its care. … The regulations fall below minimum standards of decency owed by a civilized society to those who it has incarcerated.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the Michigan regulations are “not a dramatic departure from accepted standards for conditions of confinement.” Kennedy added that inmates can still write or make phone calls to those who cannot visit under the rules. “Alternatives to visitation need not be ideal … they need only be available,” he wrote.

The ruling was applauded by Charles Hobson, a lawyer with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “This decision is important because it restricts the power of the lower federal courts to dictate corrections policy to the states,” he said.

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