539 U.S. 126 (2003), 02-94, Overton v. Bazzetta

Docket Nº:No. 02-94
Citation:539 U.S. 126, 123 S.Ct. 2162, 156 L.Ed.2d 162
Party Name:Overton v. Bazzetta
Case Date:June 16, 2003
Court:United States Supreme Court

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539 U.S. 126 (2003)

123 S.Ct. 2162, 156 L.Ed.2d 162




No. 02-94

United States Supreme Court

June 16, 2003

Argued March 26, 2003



Responding to concerns about prison security problems caused by the increasing number of visitors to Michigan's prisons and about substance abuse among inmates, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) promulgated new regulations limiting prison visitation. An inmate may be visited by qualified clergy and attorneys on business and by persons placed on an approved list, which may include an unlimited number of immediate family members and ten others; minor children are not permitted to visit unless they are the children, stepchildren, grandchildren, or siblings of the inmate; if the inmate's parental rights are terminated, the child may not visit; a child visitor must be accompanied by a family member of the child or inmate or the child's legal guardian; former prisoners are not permitted to visit except that a former prisoner who is an immediate family member of an inmate may visit if the warden approves. Prisoners who commit two substance abuse violations may receive only clergy and attorneys, but may apply for reinstatement of visitation privileges after two years. Respondents -- prisoners, their friends, and family members -- filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging that the regulations as they pertain to noncontact visits violate the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The District Court agreed, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.


1. The fact that the regulations bear a rational relation to legitimate penological interests suffices to sustain them regardless of whether respondents have a constitutional right of association that has survived incarceration. This Court accords substantial deference to the professional judgment of prison administrators, who bear a significant responsibility for defining a corrections system's legitimate goals and determining the most appropriate means to accomplish them. The regulations satisfy each of four factors used to decide whether a prison regulation affecting a constitutional right that survives incarceration withstands constitutional challenge. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89-91. First, the regulations bear a rational relationship to a legitimate penological interest. The restrictions on children's visitation are related to MDOC's valid interests in maintaining internal security and

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protecting child visitors from exposure to sexual or other misconduct or from accidental injury. They promote internal security, perhaps the most legitimate penological goal, by reducing the total number of visitors and by limiting disruption caused by children. It is also reasonable to ensure that the visiting child is accompanied and supervised by adults charged with protecting the child's best interests. Prohibiting visitation by former inmates bears a self-evident connection to the State's interest in maintaining prison security and preventing future crime. Restricting visitation for inmates with two substance abuse violations serves the legitimate goal of deterring drug and alcohol use within prison. Second, respondents have alternative means of exercising their asserted right of association with those prohibited from visiting. They can send messages through those who are permitted to visit, and can communicate by letter and telephone. Visitation alternatives need not be ideal; they need only be available. Third, accommodating the associational right would have a considerable impact on guards, other inmates, the allocation of prison resources, and the safety of visitors by causing a significant reallocation of the prison system's financial resources and by impairing corrections officers' ability to protect all those inside a prison's walls. Finally, respondents have suggested no alternatives that fully accommodate the asserted right while not imposing more than a de minimis cost to the valid penological goals. Pp. 131-136.

2. The visitation restriction for inmates with two substance abuse violations is not a cruel and unusual confinement condition violating the Eighth Amendment. Withdrawing visitation privileges for a limited period in order to effect prison discipline is not a dramatic departure from accepted standards for confinement conditions. Nor does the regulation create inhumane prison conditions, deprive inmates of basic necessities or fail to protect their health or safety, or involve the infliction of pain or injury or deliberate indifference to their risk. Pp. 136-137.

286 F.3d 311 reversed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and STEVENS, O'CONNOR, SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which SOUTER, GINSBURG, and BREYER, JJ., joined, post, p. 137. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 138.

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The State of Michigan, by regulation, places certain restrictions on visits with prison inmates. The question before the Court is whether the regulations violate the substantive due process mandate of the Fourteenth Amendment, or the First or Eighth Amendments as applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.

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The population of Michigan's prisons increased in the early 1990's. More inmates brought more visitors, straining the resources available for prison supervision and control. In particular, prison officials found it more difficult to maintain order during visitation and to prevent smuggling or trafficking in drugs. Special problems were encountered with the increase in visits by children, who are at risk of seeing or hearing harmful conduct during visits, and must be supervised with special care in prison visitation facilities.

The incidence of substance abuse in the State's prisons also increased in this period. Drug and alcohol abuse by prisoners is unlawful and a direct threat to legitimate objectives of the corrections system, including rehabilitation, the maintenance of basic order, and the prevention of violence in the prisons.

In response to these concerns, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC or Department) revised its prison visitation policies in 1995, promulgating the regulations here at issue. One aspect of the Department's approach was to limit the visitors a prisoner is eligible to receive, in order to decrease the total number of visitors. Under the MDOC's regulations, an inmate may receive visits only from individuals placed on an approved visitor list, except that qualified members of the clergy and attorneys on official business may visit without being listed. Mich.Admin.Code Rule 791.6609(2) (1999); Director's Office Mem. 1995.59 (effective date Aug. 25, 1995). The list may include an unlimited number of members of the prisoner's immediate family and ten other individuals the prisoner designates, subject to some restrictions. Mich.Admin.Code Rule 791.6609(2) (1999). Minors under the age of 18 may not be placed on the list unless they are the children, stepchildren, grandchildren, or siblings of the inmate. Rule 791.6609(2)(b); Mich.Comp.Laws Ann. § 791.268a (West Supp. 2003). If an inmate's parental rights

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have been terminated, the child may not be a visitor. Rule 791.6609(6)(1) (1999). A child authorized to visit must be accompanied by an adult who is an immediate family member of the child or of the inmate or who is the legal guardian of the child. Rule 791.6609(5); Mich. Dept. of Corrections Procedure OP.SLF/STF.05.03.140, p. 9 (effective date Sept. 15, 1999). An inmate may not place a former prisoner on the visitor list unless the former prisoner is a member of the inmate's immediate family and the warden has given prior approval. Rule 791.6609(7).

The Department's revised policy also sought to control the widespread use of drugs and alcohol among prisoners. Prisoners who commit multiple substance abuse violations are not permitted to receive any visitors except attorneys and members of the clergy. Rule 791.6609(11)(d). An inmate subject to this restriction may apply for reinstatement of visitation privileges after two years. Rule 791.6609(12). Reinstatement is within the warden's discretion. Ibid.

The respondents are prisoners, their friends, and their family members. They brought this action under Rev.Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the restrictions upon visitation violate the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. It was certified as a class action under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 23.

Inmates who are classified as the highest security risks, as determined by the MDOC, are limited to noncontact visitation. This case does not involve a challenge to the method for making that determination. By contrast to contact visitation, during which inmates are allowed limited physical contact with their visitors in a large visitation room, inmates restricted to noncontact visits must communicate with their visitors through a glass panel, the inmate and the visitor being on opposite sides of a booth. In some facilities, the booths are located in or at one side of the same room used for contact visits. The case before us concerns the regulations as they pertain to noncontact visits.

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The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan agreed with the prisoners that the regulations pertaining to noncontact visits were invalid. Bazzetta v. McGinnis, 148 F.Supp.2d 813 (2001). The Sixth Circuit affirmed, 286 F.3d 311 (2002), and we granted certiorari, 537 U.S. 1043 (2002).


The Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that the restrictions on noncontact visits are invalid. This was error. We first consider the contention, accepted by the Court of...

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