Hewitt v. Helms

Decision Date22 February 1983
Docket NumberNo. 81-638,81-638
PartiesLowell D. HEWITT et al., Petitioners v. Aaron HELMS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Following a riot in the Pennsylvania State Prison where he was an inmate, respondent was removed from his cell and the general prison population and confined to administrative segregation within the prison pending an investigation into his role in the riot. The next day respondent received notice of the misconduct charge against him. Five days after his transfer to administrative segregation a Hearing Committee reviewed the evidence against respondent, and he acknowledged in writing that he had an opportunity to have his version of the events reported, but no finding of guilt was made. Subsequently, criminal charges based on the riot were filed against respondent but were later dropped. In the meantime, a Review Committee concluded that respondent should remain in administrative segregation as posing a threat to the safety of other inmates and prison officials and to the security of the prison. Ultimately, the Hearing Committee, based on a second misconduct report and after hearing testimony from a prison guard and respondent, found respondent guilty of the second misconduct charge and ordered him confined to disciplinary segregation for six months, while dropping the earlier misconduct charge. Respondent sued in Federal District Court, claiming that petitioner prison officials' actions in confining him to administrative segregation violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, on the facts, respondent had a protected liberty interest in continuing to reside in the general prison population, which interest was created by the Pennsylvania regulations governing the administration of state prisons; that respondent could not be deprived of this interest without a hearing in compliance with the requirements of Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 41 L.Ed.2d 935; and that since the court was uncertain whether the Hearing Committee's initial proceeding satisfied such requirements, the case would be remanded to the District Court for a hearing regarding the character of that proceeding.


1. Prison officials have broad administrative and discretionary authority over the institutions they manage, and lawfully incarcerated persons retain only a narrow range of protected liberty interests. Administrative segregation is the sort of confinement that inmates should reasonably anticipate receiving at some point in their incarceration, and does not involve an interest independently protected by the Due Process Clause. But in light of the Pennsylvania statutes and regulations setting forth the procedures for confining an inmate to administrative segregation, respondent did acquire a protected liberty interest in remaining in the general prison population. Pp. 461-472.

2. The process afforded respondent satisfied the minimum requirements of the Due Process Clause. Pp. 472-477.

(a) In view of the wide-ranging deference accorded prison administrators in adopting and executing policies and practices needed to preserve order and discipline and to maintain security, petitioners were obligated to engage only in an informal, nonadversary review of the information supporting respondent's administrative confinement. P. 472.

(b) Under Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 96 S.Ct. 893, 47 L.Ed.2d 18, the private interests at stake in a governmental decision, the governmental interests involved, and the value of procedural requirements are considered in determining what process is due under the Fourteenth Amendment. Here, respondent's private interest was not of great consequence, but the governmental interests in the safety of the prison guards and other inmates and in isolating respondent pending investigation of the charges against him were of great importance. Neither of the grounds for confining respondent to administrative segregation involved decisions or judgments that would have been materially assisted by a detailed adversary proceeding. Pp. 473-474.

(c) An informal, nonadversary evidentiary review is sufficient both for the decision that an inmate represents a security threat and the decision to confine him to administrative segregation pending completion of an investigation into misconduct charges against him. In either situation, an inmate must merely receive notice of the charges against him and an opportunity to present his views to the prison official charged with deciding whether to transfer him to administrative segregation. Measured against these standards, respondent received all the process that was due after being confined to administrative segregation. Pp.476-477

655 F.2d 487 (3rd Cir.1981), reversed.

LeRoy S. Zimmerman, Atty. Gen., Harrisburg, Pa., for petitioners.

Richard G. Fishman, State College, Pa., for respondent.


Respondent Aaron Helms was serving a term in the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, (SCIH) which was administered by petitioners. He sued in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, claiming that petitioners' actions confining him to administrative segregation within the prison violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The District Court granted petitioners' motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed. We granted certiorari, --- U.S. ----, 102 S.Ct. 1629, 71 L.Ed.2d 865, to consider what limits the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment places on the authority of prison administrators to remove inmates from the general prison population and confine them to a less desirable regimen for administrative reasons.

In the early evening of December 3, 1978, a prisoner in the state penitentiary at Huntingdon, assaulted two guards. The prisoner was subdued with the assistance of other guards, but one guard received a broken nose, and another a broken thumb. Later in the evening, the violence erupted into a riot during which a group of prisoners attempted to seize the institution's "control center." One group of inmates attacked a prison guard and a trainee, using table legs, the guard's flashlight, barbells, and whatever else came to hand. On another floor, three inmates were subdued while trying to attack a sergeant of the prison guard with a flashlight, and it was necessary to forcibly subdue them and handcuff them to pipes. Inmates in one of the prison blocks tried to break a grille to enter the prison's control center, but they were held back. One of the assaulted guards suffered cuts and bruises on the face and leg areas, and another reported a possible skull fracture, broken jaw, broken teeth, and an injured collarbone.

This uprising was eventually quelled, but only with the assistance of state police units, local law enforcement officers, and off-duty prison guards whose aid was summoned. Several hours after the riot ended, respondent Helms was removed from his cell and the general prison population for questioning by the state police. Following the interview, he was placed in restrictive confinement,1 and the state police and prison authorities began an investigation into his role in the riot.

On December 4, 1978, Helms was given a "Misconduct Report" charging him with "Assaulting Officers and Conspiracy to Disrupt Normal Institution Routine by Forcefully Taking Over the Control Center." The report briefly described the factual basis for the charge and contained a lengthy recitation of the procedures governing the institution's disciplinary hearing.2 On December 8, 1978, a "Hearing Committee," consisting of three prison officials charged with adjudicating alleged instances of misconduct by inmates, was convened to dispose of the charges against Helms. Following a review of the misconduct report, the panel summarized its decision as "No finding as to guilt reached at this time, due to insufficient information," and ordered that Helms' confinement in restricted housing be continued.

While as a matter of probabilities it seems likely that Helms appeared personally before the December 8 hearing committee, we agree with the Court of Appeals that the record does not allow definitive resolution of the issue on summary judgment. Helms signed a copy of the misconduct report stating that "[t]he circumstance of the charge has been read and fully explained to me," and that "I have had the opportunity to have my version reported as part of the record." J.App., at 41a. Likewise, he admitted in an affidavit filed during this litigation that he was "informed by an institutional hearing committee" of the disposition of the misconduct charge against him. J.App., at 33a. The same affidavit, however, asserted that no "hearing" was conducted on December 8, suggesting that respondent did not appear before the committee. The state did not file any affidavit controverting Helms' contention.

On December 11, 1978, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania filed state criminal charges against Helms, charging him with assaulting Correction Officer Rhodes and with riot. On January 2, 1979, SCIH's Program Review Committee, which consisted of three prison officials, was convened. The Committee met to review the status of respondent's confinement in administrative segregation and to make recommendations as to his future confinement. The Committee unanimously concluded that Helms should remain in administrative segregation; affidavits of the Committee members said that the decision was based on several related concerns. Helms was seen as "a danger to staff and to other inmates if released back into general population," J.App., at 11a; he was to be arraigned the following day on state criminal charges, J.App., at...

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