Prison case before Supreme Court involves association rights

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court rarely adds to the portfolio of rights that prison inmates enjoy. And it probably did not grant review in the case of Overton v. Bazzetta yesterday to make an exception.

But the case may still produce an interesting new look at the privacy and First Amendment rights of prisoners.

At issue are a series of rules promulgated by the Michigan Department of Corrections governing visits to prisoners by outsiders. Visits by prisoners’ minor brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews were banned, as were visits by former inmates and others. And if an inmate violated the department’s drug-abuse policies twice, all visitors were banned except for lawyers and clergy.

The state says the rules were imposed because increases in prison populations made it more difficult to control smuggling of weapons and drugs and to monitor visits by children.

Michelle Bazzetta and other inmates challenged the regulations as a violation of their due-process rights, the First Amendment right of association and of other privacy-related rights to maintain family relationships.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit sided with the inmates, finding that “prisoners do retain a limited right to freedom of association — specifically non-contact visits with intimate associates — even while incarcerated.”

The ruling, authored by Judge Gilbert Merritt, invoked Pell v. Procunier, the 1974 ruling that offers the Supreme Court’s fullest discussion of prisoners’ First Amendment rights.

In Pell, the Court upheld a California ban on news media interviews of prison inmates, partly because inmates have other ways to communicate with the outside world. The justices also said, “A prison inmate retains those First Amendment rights that are not inconsistent with his status as prisoner or with the legitimate penological objectives of the corrections system.”

In his 6th Circuit opinion, Merritt wrote, “Imprisonment does sharply limit inmates’ right of association … . But the right of association is not wholly extinguished by imprisonment.”

The appeals panel said the Michigan rules on prison visitation were “haphazard” and not reasonably related to penological goals. In particular, the total ban on visits for those inmastes who violate drug regulations is “an extremely harsh measure,” the court said. “We find that a complete ban on all visitors is such a grievous loss that it infringes on a liberty interest protected by substantive due process. Imprisonment inevitably limits who can visit a prisoner, but it does not dissolve inmates’ marriages nor end their parental rights.”

Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing that the regulations were legitimate and that inmates’ associational rights had to be limited. “The concept of incarceration itself entails a restriction on the freedom of inmates to associate with those outside of a penal institutions,” she said in her brief.

Eleven other states also asked the high court to review the 6th Circuit ruling, arguing that establishment of a right to non-contact visits would be “potentially disruptive to prison management across the country.” The states are Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

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