WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide if inmates have constitutional rights to jailhouse visits from young relatives and others in a case that could have far-reaching implications for prisons around the country.
The high court over the years has upheld restrictions on books, packages and visitors at prisons.
Justices will consider whether Michigan went too far in banning visits by some children and former prisoners and stripping visitation privileges from drug-using inmates. An appeals court sided with inmates, ruling earlier this year that imprisonment doesn't erase a person's First Amendment right to associate with others.
Michigan and 11 other states argued that the rules should be reinstated. States and the federal government have varying regulations for inmate visits, so the court's ultimate decision will clarify what's allowed.
The Michigan inmates' lawyer argued that Michigan had the harshest visitation rules in the country, allowing someone to permanently lose the right to see family members or friends after two drug or alcohol infractions.
"This unique and extraordinarily harsh punishment had a devastating effect on prisoners and their families," attorney Deborah LaBelle told justices in a filing.
Justices must weigh Michigan authorities' ability to control their prisons against the rights of inmates. States usually win in such cases.
Michigan's rules ban visits from prisoners' minor relatives, like brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. Children and grandchildren are allowed to come to the prison, unless the parental rights have been terminated.
Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm told the court that the rules were changed because of many visitation problems, including the molestation of a child during a visit.
Michigan's rules were imposed in 1995 and challenged by a group of inmates, including Michelle Bazzetta, who was convicted in the death of her then-husband's stepmother nearly 20 years ago.
"Under our constitution, even those lawfully imprisoned for serious crimes retain some basic constitutional rights," the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. "In the present case, the regulations fall below minimum standards of decency owed by a civilized society to those it has incarcerated."
The appeals court said the ban on visitors is cruel and unusual punishment.
The last time the Supreme Court handled a major prison visitation case was in 1989, also involving a case from the 6th Circuit. Justices upheld Kentucky's visitation rules then.
Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar told the court that the appeals court decision "is potentially disruptive to prison management across the country." He said limits on visitation are needed to encourage good behavior and control contraband, which can be brought in by visitors.
The case is significant because there are 1.4 million inmates in state and federal prisons.
Also supporting Michigan were Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.
Michigan rules also prohibit former prisoners who are not immediate family from visiting. Prisoners who violate the department's drug abuse policies twice are only allowed to be visited by attorneys and clergy.
The class-action lawsuit against Michigan did not challenge other visitation rules, including a limit on monthly visits, regulations on times and dates of visits.
The case is Overton v. Bazzetta, 02-94.