Bell v. Wolfish

Decision Date14 May 1979
Docket NumberNo. 77-1829,77-1829
PartiesGriffin B. BELL et al., Petitioners, v. Louis WOLFISH et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Respondent inmates brought this class action in Federal District Court challenging the constitutionality of numerous conditions of confinement and practices in the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federally operated short-term custodial facility in New York City designed primarily to house pretrial detainees. The District Court, on various constitutional grounds, enjoined, inter alia, the practice of housing, primarily for sleeping purposes, two inmates in individual rooms originally intended for single occupancy ("double-bunking"); enforcement of the so-called "publisher-only" rule prohibiting inmates from receiving hard-cover books that are not mailed directly from publishers, book clubs, or bookstores; the prohibition against inmates' receipt of packages of food and personal items from outside the institution; the practice of body-cavity searches of inmates following contact visits with person from outside institution; and the requirement that pretrial detainees remain outside their rooms during routine inspections by MCC officials. The Court of Appeals affirmed these rulings, holding with respect to the "double-bunking" practice that the MCC had failed to make a showing of "compelling necessity" sufficient to justify such practice.

Held :

1. The "double-bunking" practice does not deprive pretrial detainees of their liberty without due process of law in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 530-543.

(a) There is no source in the Constitution for the Court of Appeals' compelling-necessity standard. Neither the presumption of innocence, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, nor a pretrial detainee's right to be free from punishment provides any basis for such standard. Pp. 531-535.

(b) In evaluating the constitutionality of conditions or restrictions of pretrial detention that implicates only the protection against deprivation of liberty without due process of law, the proper inquiry is whether those conditions or restrictions amount to punishment of the detainee. Absent a showing of an expressed intent to punish, if a particular condition or restriction is reasonably related to a legitimate nonpunitive governmental objective, it does not, without more, amount to "punishment," but, conversely, if a condition or restriction is arbitrary or pur- poseless, a court may permissibly infer that the purpose of the governmental action is punishment that may not constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees qua detainees. In addition to ensuring the detainees' presence at trial, the effective management of the detention facility once the individual is confined is a valid objective that may justify imposition of conditions and restrictions of pretrial detention and dispel any inference that such conditions and restrictions are intended as punishment. Pp. 535-540.

(c) Judged by the above analysis and on the record, "double-bunking" as practiced at the MCC did not, as a matter of law, amount to punishment and hence did not violate respondents' rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. While "double-bunking" may have taxed some of the equipment or particular facilities in certain of the common areas in the MCC, this does not mean that the conditions at the MCC failed to meet the standards required by the Constitution, particularly where it appears that nearly all pretrial detainees are released within 60 days. Pp. 541-543.

2. Nor do the "publisher-only" rule, body-cavity searches, the prohibition against the receipt of packages, or the room-search rule violate any constitutional guarantees. Pp. 544-562.

(a) Simply because prison inmates retain certain constitutional rights does not mean that these rights are not subject to restrictions and limitations. There must be a "mutual accommodation between institutional needs and objectives and the provisions of the Constitution that are of general application," Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 556, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 2975, 41 L.Ed.2d 935, and this principle applies equally to pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners. Maintaining institutional security and preserving internal order and discipline are essential goals that may require limitation or retraction of the retained constitutional rights of both convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. Since problems that arise in the day-to-day operation of a corrections facility are not susceptible of easy solutions, prison administrators should be accorded wide-ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security. Pp. 544-548.

[SCQ!]] (b) The "publisher-only" rule does not violate the First Amendment rights of MCC inmates but is a rational response by prison officials to the obvious security problem of preventing the smuggling of contraband in books sent from outside. Moreover, such rule operates in a neutral fashion, without regard to the content of the expression, there are alternative means of obtaining reading material, and the rule's impact on pretrial detainees is limited to a maximum period of approximately 60 days. Pp. 548-552.

(c) The restriction against the receipt of packages from outside the facility does not deprive pretrial detainees of their property without due process of law in contravention of the Fifth Amendment, especially in view of the obvious fact that such packages are handy devices for the smuggling of contraband. Pp. 553-555.

(d) Assuming that a pretrial detainee retains a diminished expectation of privacy after commitment to a custodial facility, the room-search rule does not violate the Fourth Amendment but simply facilitates the safe and effective performance of the searches and thus does not render the searches "unreasonable" within the meaning of that Amendment. Pp. 555-557.

(e) Similarly, assuming that pretrial detainees retain some Fourth Amendment rights upon commitment to a corrections facility, the body-cavity searches do not violate that Amendment. Balancing the significant and legitimate security interests of the institution against the inmates' privacy interests, such searches can be conducted on less than probable cause and are not unreasonable. Pp. 558-560.

(f) None of the security restrictions and practices described above constitute "punishment" in violation of the rights of pretrial detainees under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. These restrictions and practices were reasonable responses by MCC officials to legitimate security concerns, and, in any event, were of only limited duration so far as the pretrial detainees were concerned. Pp. 560-562.

2 Cir., 573 F.2d 118, reversed and remanded.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D. C., for petitioners.

Phylis Skloot Bamberger, New York City, for respondents.

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

Over the past five Terms, this Court has in several decisions considered constitutional challenges to prison conditions or practices by convicted prisoners.1 This case requires us to examine the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees—those persons who have been charged with a crime but who have not yet been tried on the charge. The parties concede that to ensure their presence at trial, these persons legitimately may be incarcerated by the Government prior to a determination of their guilt or innocence, infra, at 533-535, and n. 15; see 18 U.S.C. §§ 3146, 3148, and it is the scope of their rights during this period of confinement prior to trial that is the primary focus of this case.

This lawsuit was brought as a class action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to challenge numerous conditions of confinement and practices at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federally operated short-term custodial facility in New York City designed primarily to house pretrial detainees. The District Court, in the words of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, "intervened broadly into almost every facet of the institution" and enjoined no fewer than 20 MCC practices on constitutional and statutory grounds. The Court of Appeals largely affirmed the District Court's constitutional rulings and in the process held that under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, pretrial detainees may "be subjected to only those 'restrictions and privations' which 'inhere in their confinement itself or which are justified by compelling necessities of jail administration.' " Wolfish v. Levi, 573 F.2d 118, 124 (1978), quoting Rhem v. Malcolm, 507 F.2d 333, 336 (CA2 1974). We granted certiorari to consider the important constitutional questions raised by these decisions and to resolve an apparent conflict among the Circuits.2 439 U.S. 816, 99 S.Ct. 76, 58 L.Ed.2d 107 (1978). We now reverse.


The MCC was constructed in 1975 to replace the converted waterfront garage on West Street that had served as New York City's federal jail since 1928. It is located adjacent to the Foley Square federal courthouse and has as its primary objective the housing of persons who are being detained in custody prior to trial for federal criminal offenses in the United States District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York and for the District of New Jersey. Under the Bail Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3146, a person in the federal system is committed to a detention facility only because no other less drastic means can reasonably ensure his presence at trial. In addition to pretrial detainees, the MCC also houses some convicted inmates who are awaiting sentencing or transportation to federal prison or who are serving generally relatively short sentences in a service capacity at the MCC, convicted prisoners who have been lodged at the facility under...

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