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 the State to prove the validity of prison regulations but on the prisoner to disprove it.
Responding to concerns about prison security problems caused by the increasing number of visitors to Michigan's prisons and about substance abuse among inmates, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) promulgated new regulations limiting prison visitation. An inmate may be visited by qualified clergy and attorneys on business and by persons placed on an approved list, which may include an unlimited number of immediate family members and 10 others; minor children are not permitted to visit unless they are the children, stepchildren, grandchildren, or siblings of the inmate; if the inmate's parental rights are terminated, the child may not visit; a child visitor must be accompanied by a family member of the child or inmate or the child's legal guardian; former prisoners are not permitted to visit except that a former prisoner who is an immediate family member of an inmate may visit if the warden approves. Prisoners who commit two substance-abuse violations may receive only clergy and attorneys, but may apply for reinstatement of visitation privileges after two years. Respondents, who were prisoners, their friends, and family members, filed a 42 USC § 1983 [42 USCS § 1983] action, alleging that the regulations as they pertain to noncontact visits violated the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan agreed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
Do the regulations as they pertain to noncontact visits violate the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments?
The United States Supreme Court held 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.