Turner v. Safley (482 U.S. 78) was a 1987 Supreme Court decision that gave important guidance on when prison administrators can—and cannot—limit the application of rights for prisoners.
Two prison regulations in Missouri were challenged in a class action lawsuit. Both the district court and appeals court ruled that these regulations were unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court partially disagreed.
The first regulation concerned prisoner correspondence. Prisoners were allowed to write to other inmates if they were immediate family members, or to any other inmates about legal matters, but in all other cases, prison staff on both ends of the correspondence had to give approval. In practical terms, this kept almost all prisoners from writing to each other.
The second regulation was about marriage. Prisoners couldn't get married unless they had permission from the superintendent of the prison, and only when there were "compelling reasons to do so." In practice, this meant marriage requests were denied unless a pregnancy were involved.
Lower courts and the Supreme Court agreed that the marriage regulation was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, however, reversed earlier rulings and said that prison officials can constitutionally forbid prisoner correspondence.
Strict Scrutiny Rejected
The appeals court that considered both regulations to be unconstitutional had reached that conclusion by applying strict scrutiny, which is a method of balancing rights against government interests that very heavily favors the rights. Among other factors, strict scrutiny would require the government to use the "least restrictive means" of achieving its interest. The Supreme Court rejected this level of judicial review as inappropriate in the context of prison regulations:
"Subjecting the day-to-day judgments of prison officials to an inflexible strict scrutiny analysis would seriously hamper their ability to anticipate security problems and to adopt innovative solutions to the intractable problems of prison administration. The rule would also distort the decisionmaking process, for every administrative judgment would be subject to the possibility that some court somewhere would conclude that it had a less restrictive way of solving the problem at hand. Courts inevitably would become the primary arbiters of what constitutes the best solution to every administrative problem[....]"Strict scrutiny is so strict that using it as the decision-making process almost always leads to a ruling that the government is unconstitutionally infringing on rights. On the other end, there is a level of judicial review (called rational basis, but "lax scrutiny" would be more apt) that almost always leads to the opposite ruling. It's like having a pair of tests:
"Is this white?" (strict scrutiny)For all of the gray cases in the middle, using the first test will result in "no" and the second test will result in "yes." So if prison regulations aren't subject to strict scrutiny, does this mean pretty much anything goes? Nope! There is a test—or perhaps a family of tests—known as intermediate scrutiny. In this Turner v. Safley decision, the Supreme Court outlined an intermediate test for prisoners' rights that does cut right through the middle of the two regulations under contention.
"Is this not-black?" (rational basis)
The Need For A Standard
"Our task, then, as we stated in Martinez, is to formulate a standard of review for prisoners' constitutional claims that is responsive both to the 'policy of judicial restraint regarding prisoner complaints and [to] the need to protect constitutional rights.'"Procunier v. Martinez (referred to in the quote above as simply 'Martinez') was an earlier, 1974 Supreme Court case about censoring prisoner mail based on content. For example, if a prisoner wrote to his wife about how horrible prison conditions were, the censor could return that letter to the prisoner and say "no." The Court had applied strict scrutiny and found this practice unconstitutional.
The lower courts involved in Turner v. Safley mistakenly cited Martinez to justify applying strict scrutiny to the regulations on inmate correspondence and marriage. Why mistakenly? Because the decision in Martinez hinged on the fact that censoring inmate correspondence affected both prisoner and non-prisoner First Amendment rights. Strict scrutiny was applied to protect the rights of non-prisoners!
(Note to librarians: Martinez is an important case in the history of the "right to read" because writing and reading direct correspondence are considered equal for First Amendment purposes, though the Court does explicitly say they're not commenting on broader readership rights.)
Since Martinez, several other cases touched on prisoners' rights but did not clearly include a standard of review. Turner v. Safley finally provided an opportunity for the Court to give such a standard:
"If Pell, Jones, and Bell have not already resolved the question posed in Martinez, we resolve it now: when a prison regulation impinges on inmates' constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests." (emphasis added)Reasonable vs. Rational
In everyday speech, "reasonable" and "rational" are synonyms. In First Amendment law, "rational" is a very low bar to jump over; remember rational basis review above? By way of example, a rational response to keeping prisoners from reading martial arts manuals would be to declare all books to be contraband. (For the response to be irrational, it would have to be something like keeping prisoners from reading martial arts manuals by forbidding them to pray in German.)
So the big question is whether "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" is equivalent to "rationally related to legitimate penological interests." If so, prison administrators can limit the application of prisoners' rights in ways that are only limited by extreme craziness (like the praying in German example above).
Prisoners, rejoice: "reasonable" in this context is not the same as "rational."
Reasonable Criterion #1
Rational regulations aren't automatically reasonable, but reasonable regulations must at least be rational:
"First, there must be a 'valid, rational connection' between the prison regulation and the legitimate governmental interest put forward to justify it. Thus, a regulation cannot be sustained where the logical connection between the regulation and the asserted goal is so remote as to render the policy arbitrary or irrational."Even when lawmakers and officials are only held to the low rationality standard, they are still required to operate in a content-neutral way:
"Moreover, the governmental objective must be a legitimate and neutral one. We have found it important to inquire whether prison regulations restricting inmates' First Amendment rights operated in a neutral fashion, without regard to the content of the expression."The meaning of "content neutral" in First Amendment law is a whole other issue, but it's often used to forbid discriminating by things like religious or political viewpoint, since these are the most essential reasons for having a First Amendment in the first place.
Reasonable Criterion #2
"A second factor relevant in determining the reasonableness of a prison restriction, as Pell shows, is whether there are alternative means of exercising the right that remain open to prison inmates."This is a bit like time, place, and manner restrictions on exercising free speech rights in public forums. The government has more latitude in keeping order both in public and in prisons when citizens are merely inconvenienced rather than squeezed entirely out of the effective use of their constitutional freedoms.
Reasonable Criterion #3
"A third consideration is the impact accommodation of the asserted constitutional right will have on guards and other inmates, and on the allocation of prison resources generally."If one prisoner's exercise of a right would effectively consume the resources needed by other prisoners to do the same (in a "ripple effect"), prison officials are given more latitude to set restrictions. I immediately think of time allocated for browsing the library, using phones, conducting legal research on computers, etc. On the other hand, when the exercise of a right does not consume significant resources for others, it is less reasonable to set restrictions.
Prison guards are considered a resource for this criterion because many activities require escorts, special watching, etc.
Reasonable Criterion #4
"Finally, the absence of ready alternatives is evidence of the reasonableness of a prison regulation. By the same token, the existence of obvious, easy alternatives may be evidence that the regulation is not reasonable, but is an 'exaggerated response' to prison concerns. This is not a 'least restrictive alternative' test: prison officials do not have to set up and then shoot down every conceivable alternative method of accommodating the claimant's constitutional complaint. But if an inmate claimant can point to an alternative that fully accommodates the prisoner's rights at de minimis cost to valid penological interest, a court may consider that as evidence that the regulation does not satisfy the reasonable relationship standard."This is the truly important criterion as far as prisoners' rights are concerned. Regulations have to be more than merely rationally connected to their goal (like banning all books to avoid martial arts manuals), but they don't have to be strictly the least restrictive way of achieving their goal. Rights-restricting prison regulations should be somewhere in the middle.
If there is a clear way to be less restrictive of prisoner rights without a large cost to legitimate penological interests (physical security, order, and such), then prison administrators are constitutionally obligated to yield to prisoner rights.
The Issues At Hand, Revisited
Restrictions on inmate-to-inmate correspondence were done for legitimate, physical security reasons. There was testimony regarding gang activity and protective custody that made communication between non-relatives on non-legal matters a real concern without a clear alternative response. Other criteria were examined with the conclusion that:
"The prohibition on correspondence is reasonably related to valid corrections goals. The rule is content neutral, it logically advances the goals of institutional security and safety identified by Missouri prison officials, and it is not an exaggerated response to those objectives. On that basis, we conclude that the regulation does not unconstitutionally abridge the First Amendment rights of prison inmates"With regard to the marriage regulation, the Court first slapped down arguments that marriage is not a right for prisoners. Then the Court said that they could respond like they did in Martinez: marriage between a prisoner and a non-prisoner concerns the rights of a non-prisoner so it would be protected on the non-prisoner's account. However, they didn't cop out like this. The Court declared that the marriage restriction is not "reasonable" and is an "exaggerated response" to security concerns about love triangles and abusive relationships. There was a record of prison officials exercising "excessive paternalism" toward female prisoners, deciding on their behalf that relationships wouldn't be good for them. Meanwhile, prison officials didn't act like overprotective fathers toward male prisoners. Just a bad, utterly inappropriate situation overall.
Prisons can make rules that restrict the exercise of prisoner rights, if:
- This is done for valid penological reasons like physical security and order, as opposed to reasons like controlling the private affairs of prisoners.
- This is done in a way that is neutral to factors like political and religious views. For example, banning books simply because they are critical of the American prison system would be unconstitutional.
- The rules do strongly advance these valid goals.
- The rules aren't an exaggerated response.
- There aren't obvious alternatives that cost little to penological interests but better respect prisoners' rights.