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This article appears in the Spring 2023 Inmate Litigation Reporter, an exclusive quarterly digest analyzing new legal developments affecting the rights of people in prison -- developed specifically for people in prison.
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Short Answer: No. Prison officials who permanently or arbitrarily deny an inmate visits with family members violate the Constitution.
Between October 2017 and August 2018, Shawn Manning, father of two children between the ages of 11 and 13 years old, was a pretrial detainee at the Muscatine (Iowa) County Jail. In August 2018, Manning filed a pro se complaint against the Muscatine County Sheriff and various MCJ officials and staff claiming the defendants had violated his constitutional rights by denying him visitation with his minor-age children, based on a MCJ's blanket prohibiting same. Among other relief, Manning sought injunctive relief, punitive damages, and an order directing MCJ change its policy. The defendants in the case moved for summary judgment claiming qualified immunity and arguing that Manning's alleged right to see his children was not clearly established. A federal district court granted the defendants' motion, noting that Manning offered no cases to demonstrate that a reasonable official would have been aware the defendants' conduct under the MCJ policy was unconstitutional. Manning appealed.
Eighth Circuit Overturns District Court Decision In Manning v. Ryan, 13 F.4th 705 (8th Cir. 2021), a federal appeals court held that prison officials who permanently or arbitrarily deny an inmate visits with family members act in violation of the Constitution. However, the decision was to apply prospectively: that is, the court first affirmed the district court's decision as to qualified immunity, noting that until its present decision, no case law had made it clear that the MCJ officials had violated Manning's constitutional rights by enforcing the blanket prohibition on visitation with minor children. Thus, qualified immunity protected the defendants from liability. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. Importantly, the court then went on to say that the time was ripe to clearly establish that such behavior could amount to a constitutional violation in the future. In Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89, 95-96 (1987), a case involving inmate marriage, the United States Supreme Court held that prisoners retained a limited constitutional right to intimate association, and any limitations must be "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests."
Years later, in Overton v. Bazzetta, 539 U.S. 126, 137 (2003), the Court explained that, consistent with Turner, limitations on visitation privileges may be unconstitutional if "applied in an arbitrary manner to a particular inmate," but not if imposed "for a limited period as a regular means of effecting prison discipline."
With those decisions in mind, the appeals court stated that they were joining the federal Seventh Circuit in holding that prison officials who permanently or arbitrarily deny an inmate visits with family members in disregard of the factors described in Turner and Overton have acted in violation of the Constitution.
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