433 U.S. 119 (1977), 75-1874, Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc.

Docket Nº:No. 75-1874
Citation:433 U.S. 119, 97 S.Ct. 2532, 53 L.Ed.2d 629
Party Name:Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc.
Case Date:June 23, 1977
Court:United States Supreme Court

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433 U.S. 119 (1977)

97 S.Ct. 2532, 53 L.Ed.2d 629



North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc.

No. 75-1874

United States Supreme Court

June 23, 1977

Argued April 19, 1977




Appellee prisoners' labor union brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that its First Amendment and equal protection rights were violated by regulations promulgated by the North Carolina Department of Correction that prohibited prisoners from soliciting other inmates to join the Union and barred Union meetings and bulk mailings concerning the Union from outside sources. A three-judge District Court, which noted that appellants had "permitted" inmates to join the Union, granted substantial injunctive relief, having concluded that prohibiting inmate-to-inmate solicitation "border[ed] on the irrational," and that, since bulk mailings to and meetings with inmates by the Jaycees, Alcoholics Anonymous, and, in one institution, the Boy [97 S.Ct. 2535] Scouts (hereafter collectively "service organizations") had been permitted, appellants, absent a showing of detriment to penological objectives, "may not pick and choose depending on [their] approval or disapproval of the message or purpose of the group."


1. The challenged regulations do not violate the First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. Pp. 125-133.

(a) The fact of confinement and the needs of the penal institution impose limitations on constitutional rights, including those derived from the First Amendment, Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822, perhaps the most obvious of which is associational rights that the First Amendment protects outside of prison walls. Pp. 125-126.

(b) The District Court overstated what appellants' concession as to true membership entailed -- appellants permitted membership in the Union (which involved no dues or obligations) because of the reasonable assumption that the individual could believe what he chose to believe, but appellants never acquiesced in, or permitted, group activity by the Union, and the ban on inmate solicitation and group meetings was rationally related to the reasonable objectives of prison administration. Pp. 126-129.

(c) First Amendment speech rights are barely implicated here, mail

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rights themselves not being involved, but only the cost savings through bulk mailings. Pp. 130-131.

(d) The prohibition on inmate-to-inmate solicitation does not unduly abridge inmates' free speech rights. If the prison officials are otherwise entitled to control organized union activity within the confines of a prison, the solicitation ban is not impermissible under the First Amendment, for such a prohibition is both reasonable and necessary. Pell v. Procunier, supra at 822. Pp. 131-132.

(e) First Amendment associational rights are also not unduly abridged here. Appellants' conclusion that the presence of a prisoners' union would be detrimental to prison order and security has not been conclusively shown to be wrong, and the regulations drafted were no broader than necessary to meet the perceived threat of group meetings and organizational activity to such order and security. Pp. 132-133.

2. Appellants' prohibition against the receipt by and distribution to the inmates of bulk mail from the Union as well as the prohibition of Union meetings among inmates whereas the service organizations were given bulk mailing and meeting rights, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause. The prison does not constitute a "public forum," and appellants demonstrated a rational basis for distinguishing between the Union (which occupied an adversary role and espoused a purpose illegal under North Carolina law) and the service organizations (which performed rehabilitation services). Pp. 133-136.

409 F.Supp. 937, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 136. STEVENS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, post, p. 138. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 139.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Pursuant to regulations promulgated by the North Carolina Department of Correction, appellants prohibited inmates from soliciting other inmates to join appellee, the North Carolina Prisoners' Labor Union, Inc. (Union), barred all meetings of the Union, and refused to deliver packets of Union publications that had been mailed in bulk to several inmates for redistribution among other prisoners. The Union instituted this action, based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983, to challenge these policies. It alleged that appellants' efforts to prevent the operation of a prisoners' union violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of it and its [97 S.Ct. 2536] members, and that the refusal to grant the Union those privileges accorded several other organizations operating within the prison system deprived the Union of equal protection of the laws. A three-judge court was convened. After a hearing, the court found merit in the Union's free speech, association, and equal protection arguments, and enjoined appellants from preventing inmates from soliciting other prisoners to join the Union and from

refus[ing] receipt of the Union's publications on the ground that they are calculated to encourage membership in the organization or solicit joining.

The court also held that the Union "shall be accorded the privilege of holding meetings under such limitations and control as are neutrally applied to all inmate organizations. . . ." 409 F.Supp. 937. We noted probable jurisdiction to consider whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments extend prisoner labor unions such protection. 429 U.S. 976. We have decided that they do not, and we accordingly reverse the judgment of the District Court.

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Appellee, an organization self-denominated as a Prisoners' Labor Union, was incorporated in late 1974, with a stated goal of "the promotion of charitable labor union purposes" and the formation of a

prisoners' labor union at every prison and jail in North Carolina to seek through collective bargaining . . . to improve . . . working . . . conditions. . . .1

It also proposed to work toward the alteration or elimination of practices and policies of the Department of Correction which it did not approve of, and to serve as a vehicle for the presentation and resolution of inmate grievances. By early 1975, the Union had attracted some 2,000 inmate "members" in 40 different prison units throughout North Carolina. The State of North Carolina, unhappy with these developments, set out to prevent inmates from forming or operating a "union." While the State tolerated individual "membership," or belief, in the Union, it sought to prohibit inmate solicitation of other inmates, meetings between members of the Union, and bulk mailings concerning the Union from outside sources. Pursuant to a regulation promulgated by the Department of Correction on March 26, 1975, such solicitation and group activity were proscribed.

Suit was filed by the Union in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on March 18, 1975, approximately a week before the date upon which the regulation was to take effect. The Union claimed that its rights, and the rights of its members, to engage in protected free speech, association, and assembly activities were being infringed by the no-solicitation and no-meeting rules. It also alleged a deprivation of equal protection of the laws in that

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the Jaycees and Alcoholics Anonymous were permitted to have meetings and other organizational rights, such as the distribution of bulk mailing material, that the Union was being denied. A declaratory judgment and injunction against continuation of these restrictive policies were sought, as were substantial damages.2

A three-judge District Court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281 and 2284, while dismissing the Union's prayers for damages and attorney's fees, granted it substantial injunctive relief. The court found that appellants "permitted" inmates to join the Union, but "oppose[d] the solicitation of other inmates to join," either by inmate-to-inmate solicitation or by correspondence. [97 S.Ct. 2537] 409 F.Supp. at 941. The court noted, id. at 942:

[Appellants] sincerely believe that the very existence of the Union will increase the burdens of administration and constitute a threat of essential discipline and control. They are apprehensive that inmates may use the Union to establish a power bloc within the inmate population which could be utilized to cause work slowdowns or stoppages or other undesirable concerted activity.

The District Court concluded, however, that there was "no consensus" among experts on these matters, and that it was "left with no firm conviction that an association of inmates is necessarily good or bad. . . ." Id. at 942-943. The court felt that, since appellants countenanced the bare fact of Union membership, it had to allow solicitation activity, whether by inmates or by outsiders:

We are unable to perceive why it is necessary or essential to security and order in the prisons to forbid

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solicitation of membership in a union permitted by the authorities. This is not a case of riot. There is not one scintilla of evidence to suggest that the union has been utilized to disrupt the operation of the penal institutions.

Id. at 944. The other questions, respecting the bulk mailing by the Union of literature into the prisons for distribution and the question of meetings of inmate members, the District Court resolved against appellants "by application of the equal protection clause of...

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