Overton v. Bazzetta, 061603 FEDSC, 02-94

Docket Nº:02-94
Party Name:Overton v. Bazzetta
Case Date:June 16, 2003
Court:United States Supreme Court




No. 02-94

United States Supreme Court

June 16, 2003

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

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.


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 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. Rule791.6609(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. Rule791.6609(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.

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 Appeals, that the regulations infringe a constitutional right of association.

We have said that the Constitution protects “certain kinds of highly personal relationships,” Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 618, 619—620 (1984). And outside the prison context, there is some discussion in our cases of a right to maintain certain familial relationships, including association among members of an immediate family and association between grandchildren and grandparents. See Moore v. East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977) (plurality opinion); Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

This is not an appropriate case for further elaboration of those matters. The very object of imprisonment is confinement. Many of the liberties and privileges enjoyed by other citizens must be surrendered by the prisoner. An inmate does not retain rights inconsistent with proper incarceration. See Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Inc., 433 U.S. 119, 125 (1977); Shaw v. Murphy, 532 U.S. 223, 229 (2001). And, as our cases have established, freedom of association is among the rights least compatible with incarceration. SeeJones, supra, at 125—126; Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460 (1983). Some curtailment of that freedom must be expected in the prison context.

We do not hold, and we do not imply, that any right to intimate association is altogether terminated by incarceration or is always irrelevant to claims made by prisoners. We need not attempt to explore or define the asserted right of association at any length or determine the extent to which it survives incarceration because the challenged regulations bear a rational relation to legitimate penological interests. This suffices to sustain the regulation in question. See Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987). We have taken a similar approach in previous cases, such as Pell v. Procunier, 417 U.S. 817, 822 (1974), which we cited with approval in Turner. InPell, we found it unnecessary to decide whether an asserted First Amendment right survived incarceration. Prison administrators had reasonably exercised their judgment as to the appropriate means of furthering penological goals, and that was the controlling rationale for...

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