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Law School Case Brief

Overton v. Bazzetta - 539 U.S. 126, 123 S. Ct. 2162 (2003)


Courts must accord substantial deference to the professional judgment of prison administrators, who bear a significant responsibility for defining the legitimate goals of a corrections system and for determining the most appropriate means to accomplish them. The burden, moreover, is not on a state to prove the validity of prison regulations but on the prisoner to disprove it. 


The state of Michigan, by regulation, placed certain restrictions on non-contact visits with prison inmates. With the exception of qualified members of the clergy and attorneys on official business, all visitors were required to be on an approved visitors list. The list could include an unlimited number of members of the prisoner's immediate family and ten other individuals the prisoner designated, subject to some restrictions. Minors under the age of 18 could not be placed on the list unless they were children, stepchildren, grandchildren or siblings of the inmate. A child authorized to visit had to be accompanied by an adult who was an immediate family member of the child or of the inmate or who was the legal guardian of the child. If the inmate's parental rights were terminated, the child could not be listed as a visitor. An inmate could not place a former prisoner on the list unless the former prisoner was a member of the inmate's immediate family and the warden gave prior approval. Finally, prisoners who committed multiple substance-abuse violations were not permitted to receive any visitors except attorneys and members of the clergy. However, an inmate subject to this restriction could apply for reinstatement of visitation privileges after two years, subject to the warden's discretion. Prisoners, their friends, and their family members brought an action under 42 USCS § 1983 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Michigan's department of corrections and the department's director, arguing that the restrictions upon visitation violated the Federal Constitution's First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The action was certified as a class action. The District Court ruled the non-contact visits to be invalid, which the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The State sought further review from the United States Supreme Court. 


Were the restrictions on non-contact visits valid?




The United States Supreme Court reversed, holding that the restrictions did not violate the asserted First Amendment right to freedom of association or the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It explained that the challenged regulations were valid because they bore a rational relation to legitimate penological interests. The restrictions on visits by children was properly related to maintaining prison security and protecting the children, and the prohibition of visits by former inmates bore a self-evident connection to the state's interest in maintaining prison security and preventing future crimes. Further, respondents had alternate means of communicating, and allowing extensive visitation would strain prison resources. Finally, the withdrawal of visitation privileges for a limited period based on substance abuse violations did not rise to the level of cruel and unusual punishment.

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